In his most recent column, Paul Krugman makes a convincing case that the “real referendum” in this election isn’t about President Obama’s (real or imagined) economic policies, but about the “the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, on Social Security, Medicare and, yes, Obamacare, which represents an extension of that legacy.” Krugman predicts that President Obama will win this resolution, and goes on to question whether the President will honor the will of American voters in his second term.
If Obama wins, that means conservatives will have lost the “real referendum.” Conservatives have already lost the “real referendum.” They’ve been losing it for a long time — and it’s worth considering why that’s the case.
Yet there is a sense in which the election is indeed a referendum, but of a different kind. Voters are, in effect, being asked to deliver a verdict on the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, on Social Security, Medicare and, yes, Obamacare, which represents an extension of that legacy. Will they vote for politicians who want to replace Medicare with Vouchercare, who denounce Social Security as “collectivist” (as Paul Ryan once did), who dismiss those who turn to social insurance programs as people unwilling to take responsibility for their lives?
If the polls are any indication, the result of that referendum will be a clear reassertion of support for the safety net, and a clear rejection of politicians who want to return us to the Gilded Age.
So, what do the polls indicate?
- Since the revelation of the infamous “47 percent” video, both Gallup and Nate Silver’s poll-crunching indicate that Romney’s favorability has taken a pounding since his remarks to a “quiet room” of wealthy donors in Florida were aired in public.
- GOP VP nominee Paul Ryan’s budget has turned out to be a big loser in swing states, where President Obama has pulled ahead in some of those swing states — reaching the 50 percent threshold.
- Polls in those same swing states show that the majority of likely voters say Romney’s policies favor the rich. That’s been the pattern since the primaries; Romney wins the one percent, but loses the working class vote.
- According to a new report, 62 percent of working-class whites want higher taxes on the wealthy. (Romney’s tax plan results in more tax cuts for the rich, which don’t spur economic growth — and haven’t, in 65 years.)
- The same report shows that 70 percent of working-class whites “believe that the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy,” and 53 percent believe that “one of the biggest problems in the country is that we don’t give people an equal chance.”
- It’s not just the white working-class, either. A Congressional Connection poll conducted this summer showed that a majority of Americans prefer President Obama’s tax plan, which ends the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and includes “new federal spending to try to create jobs by rehabilitating public schools, improving roads and mass transit, and preventing layoffs of teachers, police officers, and other first responders.”
So, why do the polls indicate dismal prospect for conservatives in the “real referendum”? I can think of a few reasons.
First, like I said earlier, millions of Americans heard Mitt Romney’s disdainful comments about “47 percent” of Americans, and knew on a gut level that he was talking about them and their loved-ones. Their responses made one thing very clear — they didn’t like it.
Even Americans who aren’t technically part of the 47 percent, because they do earn enough to owe federal income taxes, were stung Romney’s assertion that people like “them” — who are struggling though the recession and the unemployment crisis — just don’t want to “take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” For them, Romney’s remarks confirmed their worst suspicions about him: that Romney knows nothing about “personal responsibility” or about their lives, and doesn’t care to.
The thing about not having much money is you have to take much more responsibility for your life. You can’t pay people to watch your kids or clean your house or fix your meals. You can’t necessarily afford a car or a washing machine or a home in a good school district. That’s what money buys you: goods and services that make your life easier, that give you time and space to focus on what you want to focus on.
That’s what money has bought Romney, too. He’s a guy who sold his dad’s stock to pay for college, who built an elevator to ensure easier access to his multiple cars and who was able to support his wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom. That’s great! That’s the dream.
The problem is living the dream has blinded him to other people’s reality. His comments evince no understanding of how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, how awful it is to choose between skipping a day on a job you can’t afford to lose and letting your sick child fend for herself. The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives. They’re drowning in it.
Second, even Americans who are fortunate enough to (a) have jobs and (b) earn enough to owe federal income taxes, know that even if they aren’t part of the 47 percent, they and their love-ones are part of the 96 percent of Americans who have benefitted from government assistance.
But political scientists Suzanne Mettler and John Sides argue that this definition of “government benefit” is far too narrow. If you include all federal benefits that go to specific households, from Social Security to even tax expenditures like the mortgage-interest deduction, then survey data from 2008 reveals that 96 percent of Americans have received assistance from the federal government at some point in their life:
What the data reveal is striking: nearly all Americans – 96 percent – have relied on the federal government to assist them. Young adults, who are not yet eligible for many policies, account for most of the remaining 4 percent.
On average, people reported that they had used five social policies at some point in their lives. An individual typically had received two direct social benefits in the form of checks, goods or services paid for by government, like Social Security or unemployment insurance. Most had also benefited from three policies in which government’s role was “submerged,” meaning that it was channeled through the tax code or private organizations, like the home mortgage-interest deduction and the tax-free status of the employer contribution to employees’ health insurance. (more…)