How Is Public Opinion Affecting Fiscal Cliff Talks?

There is no deal yet in the slow-moving negotiations to avoid steep automatic spending cuts and tax increases on the first of the new year. Polls suggest the American people blame Republicans in Congress for the gridlock. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks to Ross Baker about influence of public opinion on the budget talks.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. In Washington, the January 1st deadline looms. That's the date by which Congress and the president must pass a budget deal to avoid steep automatic spending cuts and tax increases. Last week saw little progress in the talks between the president and Speaker John Boehner. And the American people are getting restless. If no deal is passed, someone will get the blame, but who? Ross Baker is a political scientist at Rutgers University and he joins me from the campus in New Jersey. Welcome to the program.

ROSS BAKER: Thanks, Rachel. Good to be here.

MARTIN: So, there were a handful of public opinion polls out last week. What do Americans think of all these budget negotiations that seem to be never-ending?

BAKER: Well, they're rather contradictory. For example, earlier in the week, there was a Washington Post-ABC News poll, which showed that the Republicans would suffer pretty badly in the estimation of the public if we went over the cliff. And that was followed later in the week by an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll that said that, well, no, the Republicans wouldn't suffer quite so much and was kind of more like a toss-up. So, as with so many things with polls, it depends on when the question was asked, what the question wording was and so on. But, you know, I think we can come to the conclusion that somebody's going to suffer if we go over the cliff.

MARTIN: As you point out, though, that particular poll, the Washington Post-ABC poll did say that the GOP would bear the brunt of this in the public's eyes, if we are to go off of the so-called cliff. What is the source of that sentiment?

BAKER: Well, I mean, apparently, according to the analysis in that poll, Speaker Boehner and the Republicans suffer most among moderate Republicans. Yet, paradoxically, I think the fear among most Republicans is from the right, that Tea Party supporters and so on in the public would be extremely harsh in their condemnation of the Republicans if they perceive that Speaker Boehner and the Republicans caved in to the president. But I think on the other hand, there's a sense among House Republicans that they have to stand fast in the ranks behind the speaker. He's all they've got.

MARTIN: What about in the Democratic camp? How is public opinion pushing negotiations on the left?

BAKER: Well, there the question is largely one of concern - deep concern, I might say - within the Democratic base that the president is going to give too much on entitlements. They had been emphatic that, you know, he doesn't want to raise the Medicare eligibility age and so on, but there are all kinds of things that you can play with. My belief is that whenever it's dollars involved, there's more likely to be an agreement than there are values involved. And I think as soon as they can get off the values question and onto the dollars question, I think the more likely it is that they are going to be able to get a solution.

MARTIN: Do you think that when it comes down to it - I mean, you've laid out that this is really is up to John Boehner as the representative for the Republicans and to some degree it is the president who is representing the other side. Are these two people paying attention to public opinion polls? I mean, in a very practical way, do these things shape the conversations that are happening right now?

BAKER: Gosh, Rachel. I've never known a politician who didn't read public opinion polls. And I think that they certainly are. But I think in general, I think there's an appreciation among the Republicans that they would suffer the most. I think there's a recollection of what happened during the government shutdown back in 1995, in which the Republicans miscalculated very badly and believed that the president would be blamed. And in fact, Bill Clinton came out of it looking much stronger. So, I think there's a kind of institutional memory about that, and I think they don't want to repeat it.

MARTIN: This is, of course, a lame-duck session of Congress. Some of those crucial House Republicans are leaving at the beginning of the year. Does that impact what's happening right now? Does that undercut the power of public opinion in this fight?

BAKER: Well, I mean, I think that certainly some of the more militant members of the Republican caucus who were elected in 2010 are leaving, particularly the northern ones. But that doesn't mean that there isn't still a very strong voice within the Republican caucus among conservatives who I suspect are unreconciled now and are unlikely to be reconciled when the deal is finally cut, whenever that is.

MARTIN: The public has made its opinion quite clear in its general disgust of Congress in a big way for their lack of being able to get things done. If, as some think, we go to the last minute on these negotiations and then get some kind of partial deal, are people likely to think any better of Republicans or Democrats?

BAKER: Well, Congress never does terribly well in polls in terms of their standing in the eyes of the public. But, I mean, I think perhaps a sense of relief more than any particular accolades to Congress would be the result of the public's feeling if the deal were reached.

MARTIN: Ross Baker is a political scientist at Rutgers University. Ross, thanks so much.

BAKER: You're welcome.

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