The Corner

Debt-Ceiling Polling is Useless, Unless It Shows Something We Like

Well, which is it, guys? Are opinion polls that attempt to take the public’s temperature on the debt-ceiling question useless, or do they show real and important truths that are worth writing columns about?

On Rachel Maddow’s blog last Friday, Steve Benen wrote the following in a post titled, “The ongoing irrelevance of debt-ceiling polls”:

Let this be a reminder to the political world: there’s nothing quite as useless as a debt-ceiling poll. Folks have no idea what the debt ceiling is, what default is, what bond markets are, or what the full faith and credit of the United States means, so polling on the subject tells us nothing.

I remember a friend of mine a while back comparing this to surveys asking Americans which medical treatments are safer than others — respondents may have opinions on the matter, and they may have heard bits and pieces of information about competing options, but they lack the knowledge and understanding to give those attitudes constructive value.

This is, of course, counterintuitive for much of the political world. We’ve come to believe, righty, that the public’s judgment is basically sound and fair, and public officials have a responsibility to take Americans’ wisdom seriously.

But as I argued during the last crisis, the responsible thing for policymakers to do is simply ignore debt-ceiling polls. The public has no meaningful understanding of this issue, and doesn’t understand what would happen in the event of failure.

In which case, one wouldn’t take the public’s views on the issue with much more than a pinch of salt, right? One certainly wouldn’t infer much from them.

Wrong. Yesterday afternoon, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote a whole piece about how polling on the debt-ceiling reveals conservatives and Republicans to be insane:

If we are going to have a debt ceiling and default crisis — with all of the havoc it may well entail — it may well be because Republican voters want such a crisis, even if it causes serious economic harm.

No, really. That’s what a new poll shows.

The new Washington Post/ABC News poll on the debt ceiling tells us something remarkable: Among Republicans who believe that not raising the debt ceiling wouldcause serious harm to the economy, a majority of them wants Congress not to raise it anyway. By contrast, Americans overall see it in the opposite way.

I don’t really know how to explain this. Perhaps it’s confusion about the debt limit (not raising it, of course, would only cause default on debts already incurred), or maybe it’s an expression of generalized hostility towards something Obama wants. Or perhaps it’s that Republican lawmakers have been telling these voters for years now that spending under Obama is the leading threat to the survival of American civilization (even though the deficit is falling and there just isn’t any near term crisis to speak of), and that standing up to Obama in these epic spending confrontations is the only way to arrest the republic’s slide into total ruin. Apocalyptic intervention is required to salvage what’s left of our country, no matter how much harm it causes in the process.

“Tells us something remarkable.” “No, really. That’s what a new poll shows.” ”Total ruin”? “Apocalyptic”? Those are big words to use when discussing one of those silly, “irrelevant” debt-ceiling polls.

I wonder what the difference could be between these two positions. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that Benen was tasked with pushing backing against a poll that suggested that a majority of Americans are against raising the debt-limit, while Sargent was presented with the delicious opportunity to write up a poll that showed just the opposite?

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