One reason that the congressional deficit-reduction committee failed is that many Republicans believe time is on their side. That optimism is rooted in the widespread conviction among the party that it has a strong chance of holding the House in 2012 while recapturing both the Senate and the White House. On paper, such unified control would give Republicans the leverage in 2013 to shrink the federal deficit solely by cutting spending without accepting the tax increases that Democrats are demanding as the price for big reductions, especially in Social Security and Medicare.
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As electoral analysis, that’s hardly unreasonable. But as a legislative forecast, it could prove much more problematic. Even with unified control, passing a deficit plan that relies solely on spending reductions (particularly in entitlements) while preserving tax cuts for the affluent could strain the Republican electoral coalition much more violently than most GOP leaders now assume. In fact, the GOP faces a conundrum: It may gain enough power next year to impose a just-cuts solution only by placating the voters most skeptical of that approach.
The reason is the changing nature of the Republican coalition. Over the past several decades, Republicans have run increasingly well in the overlapping circles of older and blue-collar whites. Those trends have dramatically accelerated under President Obama: In 2010, exit polls showed that GOP House candidates carried a crushing 63 percent both among white seniors and whites without a four-year college degree. Those groups are now at least as integral to Republican success as the corporate managers, small-business owners, and college-educated suburbanites who once anchored their vote.
On many issues, there’s little daylight between the GOP’s upscale and downscale wings. Recent polling by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, for instance, shows that Republican supporters with and without college degrees oppose gay marriage and support building a fence along the Mexican border in roughly equal numbers. (By Republican supporters, I mean both self-identified Republicans and independents who lean toward the party.)
On broad statements of government’s role, the two groups track closely as well. In a September United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll, just under half of Republican supporters with and without college degrees said they preferred Congress to close the budget deficit solely with spending cuts while avoiding any tax increases.
But when questions turn from the general to the specific deficit choices, the polling illuminates much deeper fissures in the GOP coalition. In November, another Congressional Connection Poll asked adults what possible outcome from the super-committee process most concerned them. Nearly one-third of college-educated Republicans feared a deal that would authorize too much spending; roughly a fourth were most worried that it wouldn’t sufficiently cut the deficit. Just one in five said their main concern was a deal cutting too much from Social Security and Medicare.
Among Republicans without a college degree, the results were almost inverted. Nearly one-third said they were most concerned that a deal would cut too much from Social Security and Medicare. Just one in five said they were most worried it would authorize too much spending. Only one in seven feared it would not slice the deficit enough.
The same trend holds for key ideas a GOP Congress and president would likely pursue in 2013. Although nearly three-fifths of college-educated Republicans said the deficit-reduction package should raise the Medicare retirement age, nearly three-fifths of noncollege Republicans said it should not. While 55 percent of college-educated Republicans supported a 10-year freeze on spending for domestic programs, a mirror-image 55 percent of noncollege Republicans opposed the idea. In the September poll, the college-plus Republicans backed the House GOP idea to convert Medicare into a voucher-like system by a resounding 58 percent to 32 percent. Noncollege Republicans divided almost in half, with 48 percent supporting the idea and 43 percent opposing.
All of these results underline the same conclusion: The GOP now relies on a substantial block of economically strained voters who are hostile to government spending in general but deeply resistant to cuts in programs they believe sustain them directly—particularly Social Security and Medicare. Those same downscale Republicans are also more open to raising taxes than any national GOP leader: In the November Congressional Connection survey, fully two-fifths of them said they would support ending the George W. Bush tax cuts for the affluent.
A GOP that controls all of Washington’s levers in 2013 might muster enough party discipline to simultaneously convert Medicare into a voucher, retrench Social Security, and extend all of the Bush tax cuts. But the attitudes ringing through these polls suggest that enacting such a program on a narrow party-line vote without any Democratic cover would be an enormous gamble. Republicans fear dividing their coalition over taxes if they compromise with Democrats before 2012; they shouldn’t underestimate how much a cuts-only deficit plan could split their party in 2013 if they don’t.
This article appears in the December 3, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.