On Taxes and Spending, Democrats Must Not Ignore Public Skepticism

The American people are about to confront their contradictions – their demand for more specific services but less “government” in general, for lower deficits but not for higher taxes or less of the spending that dominates government.

Also heading for a confrontation are Americans and their leaders in Washington, the latter of whom are preparing to expand the role of government just as Americans seem increasingly wary of what government can or should do.

The coming confrontation between the public and its leaders raises perhaps the most vexing question of representative democracy: Should elected leaders do what they think is right – public opinion be damned! – or should they act to reflect the thinking of those who voted them into office?

For a window on public attitudes, cast your eyes to the West – to the state that often serves as a bell-weather for trends that will sweep the nation, from taxes and spending to immigration to the environment. California triggered a national tax revolt with Proposition 13 in 1978 to limit property taxes, and we may be witnessing the early stages of another paroxysm of public outrage against government.

Last week, voters from Eureka to San Diego overwhelming rejected ballot initiatives, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders crafted, to close the state’s huge budget shortfall. Californians want the health care, education, transportation and other services that dominate their state budget but, as they made clear, they don’t want to pay higher taxes to support them.

Now, state leaders may seek a federal bailout, which would essentially mean that all Americans would pay for the refusal of Californians to face the inherent contradictions in their fiscal thinking. For that reason if no other (and there are plenty of others), Washington should reject any such request.

Washington, however, may want to step back and take the full measure of what’s happening in California. For however much the politicians in Washington sometimes dismiss the Left Coast as a curiosity, the voters are expressing sentiments that could wreak havoc with Washington’s bold agenda.

In Washington, President Obama and the Democrat-run Congress are crafting plans to reform health care and combat global warming, among other things. Voters say they want their elected leaders to address both, and also to protect Social Security, improve education and meet other domestic needs.

The Democrats’ health and climate plans both call for a strong role for government – the former, to create a new market for those who now lack insurance; the latter, to create a system that would cap overall emissions of greenhouse gases while enabling polluters to operate within those parameters.

Done correctly, health reform also will enable Obama to fulfill another promise – to restore the nation’s fiscal sanity by addressing exploding budget deficits. What’s driving long-term deficits are soaring costs for Medicare and Medicaid and those, in turn, are driven by soaring costs across the health care system.

The question, however, is whether Americans and their leaders share the same confidence about government’s ability to address health care, climate and other problems, and about what role higher taxes should play. Public skepticism seems to extend far beyond the gatherings at recent anti-tax “tea parties.”

In late April, Gallup reported that 55 percent of Americans said big government is the biggest threat facing the nation. Also, a Rasmussen Reports survey found that 60 percent of Americans believe the federal government has too much power and too much money. Rasmussen also found that 52 percent of Americans said they pay “more than their fair share” in taxes and 51 percent of Americans viewed the tea parties favorably

Congressional Republicans will surely capitalize on these sentiments to sow opposition to Democratic initiatives.

They already call the emerging Democratic health plan a government takeover. And while Obama seeks to raise taxes only on those making over $250,000 and on corporations, Republicans say those tax hikes will translate into less investment, fewer jobs and higher prices throughout the economy.

For Democrats, the answer is not to succumb to these largely vacuous GOP charges. But neither is it to ignore obvious signs of public skepticism.

So, to the question from above – should they lead or should they follow? – here’s the answer: Both. That is, they should step up to address public needs, but they should be careful not to pursue solutions that are far bolder, and far more government-centered, than the public of 2009 will accept.

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