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How Democrats Can Win the Budget Debate

Posted: 03/10/11 06:15 PM ET

We must begin by acknowledging two current political realities. First, voters strongly believe that Washington needs to fundamentally change the way it does business. This manifests itself, in the abstract, in a robust appetite for fiscal discipline and cuts to government spending. A recent Gallup poll shows that a plurality of voters believe that even Republican proposals to cut spending do not go far enough (and just 25 percent think they have gone too far).

Second, Democrats enter the budget debate with a lack of credibility with voters when it comes to spending and the deficit. Our recent Democracy Corps survey shows that, when asked which party will make the right choices on deciding how to reduce the federal deficit, voters trust the Republicans more than the Democrats by 15 points.

If Democrats allow the current debate to play out with Republicans defined as the party of fiscal discipline and spending cuts and Democrats arguing against the Republican proposal as too severe or draconian, they will only further solidify this disadvantage at their own great peril. In a recent survey from Resurgent Republic, such a Democratic argument loses to the Republican argument for larger cuts by 26 points.

But this is a fight that also offers Democrats incredible opportunity. When framed correctly, emphasizing the need to change the way Washington works and shifting the debate to the priorities of the two parties, it can provide a winning contrast with the GOP and allow Democrats to aggressively go on offense.

Let us be clear: the cuts proposed by House Republicans are bad policy and Democrats are right to resist them. However, Democrats must cross a threshold on fiscal accountability to even be heard on this debate, particularly by independents, and simply arguing that the Republican cuts are too big or too draconian will prevent that. If Democrats can cross this threshold, voters are very much on their side when it comes to the specific ideas Republicans are advancing.

In contrast to the public's general desire for fiscal restraint, multiple recent studies show that when the proposed GOP cuts are described in specific terms, they are highly unpopular and the more voters hear about them, the less they like them. The Democracy Corps survey finds at least 64 percent opposition for twelve of the specific cuts proposed by House Republicans.

Thus, the endgame for Democrats is to shift the debate away from which party will cut spending more and reframe it around which party will cut spending and reduce the deficit the right way. This requires a multi-step approach in which sequencing is important:

1. Communicate that things need to change. Democrats' entire message must be framed by the idea that Washington can't keep doing things the same way it always has. This means reforming government to make sure every taxpayer dollar gets results, but can also expand to the need to stop taxpayer giveaways to corporate interests, CEOs and the like.

2. Start by addressing the electorate's desire for results, accountability and reducing waste. The recent Wall Street Journal/NBC survey has an important result: just 35 percent of Americans would support cutting important programs if the "deficit cannot be eliminated solely by cutting wasteful federal spending." However, most Americans think that cutting waste CAN, at the very least, make a substantial impact on the deficit. And who can blame them when the GAO is reporting over $100 billion in duplicative and wasteful government programs?

So Democrats must meet voters where they are by showing a serious commitment to tackling accountability and waste. This does not mean simply cutting things, but insisting that government programs be measured for results so we can focus on what works and get rid of the ones that don't. The GAO report provides Democrats with an opportunity to show voters they are serious about insisting on results.

But Democrats should also expand the traditional definition of waste to include the lobbyist-driven deals and tax gimmicks that benefit special interests at the expense of the American taxpayer. And this provides a nice transition to the core contrast Democrats need to build to win the debate:

3. Win the debate by focusing on priorities -- both sides propose cutting spending and reducing the deficit, but the Democratic plan is the right one for America. The steps above are necessary for Democrats to achieve credibility on the issue and get a hearing from voters, but the opportunity for winning this debate lies in establishing a clear difference on how we cut spending. Democrats must not argue against cuts generally, but rather against the wrong kind of cuts, while offering an alternative. And in framing this debate we should not limit ourselves to the current argument over the Continuing Resolution. Democrats need to broaden the debate to include the "Ryan Roadmap," which should be rebranded as the "Republican Roadmap."

The Republicans are wrong because instead of going after the wasteful deals for special interests, they want to cut education, food safety inspectors and veterans' benefits while gutting Social Security and Medicare. They even propose raising taxes on all Americans making less than $200,000. At the same time, they want to protect subsidies for the oil and drug companies and give even more special tax breaks to the corporate special interests, CEOs and wealthiest Americans.

The Democratic plan starts by cutting waste and ending government programs that don't work. As we discussed last month, instead of cuts that hurt regular people and undermine our future, Democrats propose eliminating earmarks and ending expensive government subsidies for corporate special interests like oil companies, drug companies and Wall Street CEOs, while protecting the investments in education, innovation and small business that are the backbone of our economic future.

Despite voters' call for spending cuts writ large, the plan being offered by the Republicans gives them great pause and opens the door for Democrats to seize the mantle on which party has the best plan for cutting spending and reducing the deficit. If this debate is allowed to play out as the Republicans who want to make big cuts, versus the Democrats, who want to defend the spending status quo, then Democrats are headed for trouble. But if the Democrats can reframe the debate around the question of priorities, they should come out way ahead.

Al Quinlan, President; Michael Bocian, Principal; and Drew Lieberman and Andrew Baumann, Senior Associates, are from the polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner contributed to this article.