by Ken Feltman
Conservatism is a hard choice for a society that has become accustomed to big government and big entitlements promoted by liberals.
– Senator Jesse Helms
Are we missing the point? Is the debt-ceiling struggle just another skirmish in a long war? This isn’t about raising taxes and/or cutting the budget. “It’s the entitlements, stupid.” No, not the big ones like Social Security and veterans’ benefits. This war, which has been fought in the background since the New Deal, is really over targeted entitlements and the perception by a growing number of Americans that many entitlements are political plums that go to favored groups.
Former conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina saw things as a battle between the profligate left and the steadfast right. He saw clear choices with ideas in competition. He sometimes characterized government programs as right versus wrong, good versus evil. He lamented that the self-reliance that he advocated was losing ground to a growing group of people living off benefits and programs paid for by someone else.
About ten years ago, Helms and I were on a panel discussing the growth of entitlement programs and their impact on the federal budget. He forecast that “members of the greedy class” would “bring down the country before they permit their benefits to be cut.” I disagreed, saying that Americans were generous and willing to share their good fortune with others. Likewise, Americans would expect that, if things got tough, we would all share the cutbacks and sacrifices.
Helms turned on his caustic best and told me that I underestimated the selfishness of the lazy and unproductive. I responded that Americans without an ax to grind – those not tied to right-wing or left-wing ideals and programs – would exercise common sense and tip the balance. He countered that the moderates – “squishies,” he called them – could not lead, only wring their hands and play the Chicken Little role.
Wishing but not hoping
When we concluded, Helms reached out to shake my hand and said, “I wish you were right.” Note that he did not say he hoped I was right. He had made his decision: The country was on the road to ruin and unless conservatives took it back, the U.S. might fall apart. The beneficiaries of liberal welfare programs would not give up their entitlements even as the country crumbled.
Perhaps his wish rather than his prophesy is coming true. Radnor research suggests that Americans in the political middle are ready to modify or even pull the plug on many entitlement programs, even programs that benefit them directly. (Although this risks oversimplification, today the term entitlement tends to be used to describe programs that benefit specified groups; Earmarks is usually used for programs and budget outlays that tend to benefit commerce, research, business and industry.)
Swing voters feel a deep responsibility to the beneficiaries of entitlement programs that are designed for all Americans (Social Security and veterans’ benefits, for example), but also a deep responsibility to future generations. They expect that the beneficiaries of government programs will join them in sacrificing for the future. If not, then these independent voters are prepared to impose benefits cuts on the recipients. They are impatient with their government and with beneficiaries and government officials who display or encourage selfishness.
The fallout from this growing sentiment may rattle the sacred bones of the New Deal. Finally, the entitlement era may have run its course.
A perception has taken hold that the national leadership is divided into the far left and far right, with no one in the middle. Our leaders have cultivated constituencies of think-alike supporters who are inflexible and, therefore, bind the leaders to polarized positions. The independents believe that relatively few people actually support the left- or right-wing agendas or the spokespersons for those agendas. But because of the way the American political system is organized, and because the media present issues in their starkest contrasts, the voices from the fringes shout out more reasoned voices.
The centrists have concluded that segments of society have managed to carve out special government programs that benefit their particular group. Funding comes from general tax revenues but the programs have specific beneficiaries. The centrists believe that Democrats favor social causes and their constituencies (family planning and gay marriage are mentioned frequently) while Republicans promote business tax breaks and subsidies.
These swing voters view the current debate over the debt ceiling from the perspective of an average citizen who does not have a special program to defend but who pays taxes to support the special programs of others. Radnor’s analysis of focus groups and polling shows that swing voters are agitated and increasingly outspoken because they feel that the current debate in Washington is really about protecting favored programs for certain specific groups and not about the common good.
Community programs versus targeted programs
Themes emerge. People want programs that serve the whole community. They are less willing to provide for special programs if those programs cause the elimination or curtailment of programs that benefit everyone. Why? Perhaps that answer is found in the comment of a woman from Louisiana: “I’m never part of the special class but I’m always part of the paying class.” Programs that benefit a specific group identified by sex, race, religion, health or citizenship status are viewed as more expendable in these difficult budget times.
The federal government, and many state and local governments, have created programs that benefit only certain segments of American society but are paid for by everyone. Many moderates are convinced that some of the groups are sponsoring illegal or anti-American activities. We may have reached critical mass: Politicians who oppose a program will use budget woes as an excuse to examine entitlement spending. Moderates may support that examination on grounds of favoritism as well as budget.
Many believe that the government is stepping in to fund groups that cannot sustain themselves in the marketplace. Conservatives have long believed that the media support left-leaning groups while ignoring mainstream and conservative groups; Now more and more swing voters express that attitude as well. Moderates are joining conservatives in thinking that the media look down on average Americans. They concluded some time ago that major universities are hotbeds of radical activism, some of it anti-American. Conservatives have found that threatening; Moderates have ignored it – till now. Today, more of them wonder why taxpayers fund university research into all sorts of frivolous things.
Two years ago it was libertarians and right-leaning Republicans who had given up on government. Now, the middle seems to have, too. Why? Wisconsin has more to do with the change that most of us realize.
The objections by unions and their members in Wisconsin to cutbacks in what turned out to be generous benefits got the attention of swing voters. The televised protests by public employees surprised, irritated and energized many moderates, especially those earning less than the protesting public employees.
If the sentiments of these middle-ground voters guide future policy, look for less government funding for group-specific programs and public employee benefits. Programs that cover everyone are not the target. The entitlement era may be over but this is not the end of compassion. As governments at all levels face a lingering recession and depleted treasuries, more and more people are deciding that group entitlements and unions have developed such a voracious appetite that they threaten to devour everything.
Without the battle over the debt ceiling, people might not have thought about entitlements. Washington gridlock has consequences, many unintended. Some people who have been passive about politics are deciding that they will have to change what Washington seems powerless to change. The independents are not saying “no” to spending cuts or “no” to taxes. They are saying “probably not” to entitlement spending.