Are Voters Ready for Mitch’s ‘Tough Love’?

March 14, 2011

For release March 16 and thereafter (670 words)

When Sen. Richard G. Lugar declared his candidacy for president on April 19, 1995, he offered an ambitious domestic policy goal: balancing the federal budget in seven years. Central to his vision was a plan to replace the national income tax with a retail sales tax and to drastically cut government spending.

We’ll never know if Lugar could have delivered. The Oklahoma City bombing overshadowed his announcement and his sales tax proposal gained no traction. He dropped out of the race in March 1996 without winning a primary. For whatever reason, his economic tough love message didn’t resonate with voters.

Will 2012 be different? Gov. Mitch Daniels, once Lugar’s right-hand man, will find out fast if he decides to launch a presidential bid of his own.

On “Meet the Press” Sunday, Daniels indicated that a national campaign — if there is one — would focus on debt, unaffordable entitlements and earmark spending. “The financial and fiscal problems facing this country are of a level that, I believe, threatens not just our prosperity but the survival of our republic,” he said.

Though voters didn’t embrace Lugar’s message, much has changed for the worse in 15 years.  In 1996, unemployment stood at 5.4 percent; now it’s 9 percent. In 1996, the federal budget deficit was $107 billion; in 2010, it was $1.29 trillion. In 1996, the national debt stood at $5.2 trillion. It just hit $14.1 trillion. Had government taken some of the steps Lugar suggested, Daniels would not be talking now about “the new Red menace.”

Because the problem is so fundamental, Daniels has suggested Republicans call a truce on social issues — on which opposing sides will never agree — so the nation can concentrate on fiscal priorities. There are signs the public would agree.

In a nationwide survey in February 2009 for the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, 85 percent of respondents called the budget deficit and national debt either a “very big threat” or a “fairly big threat” to our country’s future.  Republicans — 73 percent of them — were most likely to call it a “very big threat,” but so did 58 percent of Democrats and 72 percent of independents.

In fact, the debt weighed more heavily on respondents’ minds than any other issue mentioned, including manufacturing jobs being moved overseas, schools failing to keep up with global economy or climate change.

Similarly, in a February 2011 poll conducted by the Tarrance Group for Public Notice, more than half of the public expressed support for budget cuts.  When asked “Are you more or less likely to vote to re-elect your member of Congress if he or she supported $60 billion in federal budget cuts?” 52 percent said more (67 percent of Republicans, 54 percent of independents and 37 percent of Democrats).

Yet for Daniels to win a debate on entitlement programs, he’d have to overcome decades of political misinformation, including a 63 percent majority’s impression that the federal government spends more on defense and foreign aid than on Medicare and Social Security. The reality? Twenty percent of the budget goes to defense and security, while 41 percent goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and CHIP (children’s health insurance). Six percent goes to paying interest on the national debt.

For example, in the Tarrance Group survey, 60 percent agreed with the statement, “The federal budget debt and deficit can be fixed by just eliminating the waste, fraud, and abuse in federal spending.”  Only 44 percent agreed that “Medicare and Social Security are a major source of problems for the federal budget.”

In 1996, the Concord Coalition, a Tea Party-like think tank, warned, “Unless we change course, 1996 will be as good as it gets. The American economy is now sitting in the eye of the deficit hurricane.” Bill Clinton went on to defeat Bob Dole that year and issues like Social Security and Medicare reform faded from view.

In 2011 a fiscal tsunami is bearing down. Whether or not they embrace Daniels as messenger, voters would be foolish to ignore the message.

Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at


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