Math Is Hard

by Larry Bartels on September 10, 2012 · 1 comment

in Campaigns and elections,Policy,Public opinion

Bill Clinton earned rave reviews for his convention speech, in which he skewered Republicans for failing “the arithmetic test” as well as “the values test.” Of course, appeals to facts and logic play well with pundits. But it is much less clear that they are persuasive to voters.

Thomas Edsall has a fascinating piece today on “The Ryan Sinkhole”—the $897 billion in unspecified domestic spending cuts in the Ryan budget bill. I recommend it to anyone interested in budget policy, budget politics, and how they (mostly don’t) meet.

Edsall spent some time in New Hampshire “telling potential Republican voters exactly what the Romney-Ryan ticket intends to cut.” With what effect? “Two voters, both Republicans, told me they could not bring themselves to vote for their party this year because the Ryan budget cuts spending for veterans’ benefits.” But when the intrepid reporter contacts the Romney campaign for a reaction, he is told that the Ryan budget actually mandates more spending on veterans’ benefits than the Obama budget. That $897 billion in spending cuts isn’t in budget Function 700 (Veterans Benefits); it is in mysterious residual Function 920 (Allowances)! “Gov. Romney and Paul Ryan are committed to keeping faith with our veterans and providing the care they so richly deserve.”

Edsall airs his frustration at getting the budget runaround:

It turns out that a reading of the Ryan budget—if you don’t parse Function 920—is deceptive. . . . The Ryan budget does, in fact, ‘duck the tough issues.’ Ryan claims to be proposing major steps toward a balanced budget and long-term debt reduction, but he doesn’t really tell voters how he is going to get there.


Then he gets to the political heart of the matter:

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the omissions in the Ryan budget is the failure of Obama and other Democrats to capitalize on it. Leading Democrats I spoke to . . . cited two factors limiting their ability to mount a counter-attack. First, the complexity of the issue makes it difficult for reporters to understand and write about the subject. After wading my way through all of this, I know what they mean. Second, the Ryan tactic of obscuring the cuts successfully plays to a fundamental ambivalence that amounts to an internal contradiction in public opinion: strong support for spending cuts in the abstract, but opposition to many specific cuts in programs that have popular support.


Edsall ends by quoting Christopher Van Hollen, a Democrat on the House Budget Committee, calling the Ryan budget “a shell game designed to hide the damage to the country.” According to Edsall, “Van Hollen is frustrated that the damage to which he alludes has not become a campaign issue.” Edsall himself seems pretty frustrated about that, too. But what is to be done? I get that question a lot; and I’m ashamed to say that I don’t have any good answer.

In other political news of the day, Dylan Matthews notes that 15% of Ohio Republicans say Mitt Romney killed Osama bin Laden. That result inspires a quick tour of academic writing on the nature of survey responses and motivated reasoning, from which Matthews concludes that “unlike people who read this blog, most Americans only have a casual interest in politics, and don’t have particularly consistent or well-thought-through views on most political topics.” Does Tom Edsall have half an hour to spend with each of them?

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