Polling suggests public still struggles with debt ceiling basics

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The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, released last week, found that Americans would blame a debt ceiling crisis on congressional Republicans and President Joe Biden in roughly equal measure. That didn’t make a lot of sense — only one side of the political divide is threatening to harm Americans deliberately — but the data served as a timely reminder that much of the country isn’t following the fight closely.

But that’s not the only problem. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday on the results of its latest national survey.

Many voters see few good options for policy makers as President Biden and congressional Republicans work in an effort to avert the first-ever default by the government as soon as next month. Forty-five percent of respondents to a recent Wall Street Journal poll said they didn’t favor Congress lifting the debt ceiling, the mechanism used to avoid default in the past. Some 44% favor lifting it. Republicans tend to be more skeptical, with three in four GOP voters opposed to Congress lifting the debt ceiling, according to the survey.

In other words, thanks to such strong opposition to the idea from Republican voters in this poll, a narrow plurality of Americans now believes the United States should default on its debts.

Except that doesn’t make sense. While it’s easy to believe the polling data is roughly accurate in terms of measuring public attitudes, it’s nearly impossible to believe so many people would welcome — and indeed, invite — the devastating consequences of the nation refusing to honor its obligations.

Or put another way, if everyone knew what the policy was all about, and how much suffering default would produce, we’d see different data.

But those aren’t the circumstances we find ourselves in. Many Americans have no real idea what the debt ceiling is, what default entails, or how drastic the economic effects would be. It’s likely that much of the public hears the phrase “debt ceiling” and instead of thinking “paying our bills,” they think raising it would lead to more debt, which they see as an inherently bad thing.

The fact that raising the limit costs nothing is a detail that goes largely overlooked.

Of course, the larger point is not that many Americans are unfamiliar with the nuances of federal budgetary policy. That, in and of itself, isn’t especially notable. People tend not to have time to familiarize themselves with such details.

Rather, what matters here are the political implications of polling results like these.

For one thing, as much of the public struggles with the basics, it becomes easier for Republicans to get away with dangerously radical tactics. It’s hardly a stretch to think that if it were common knowledge that GOP officials were threatening us with deliberate harm unless Democrats agreed to devastating and unpopular cuts, it’d be a while before Republicans were a competitive major political party.

But just as important are the incentives: GOP leaders aren’t exactly feeling public pressure to resolve the crisis they created in a responsible way because (a) a plurality of Americans think raising the debt ceiling doesn’t sound like a good idea; and (b) voters don’t really have a good sense of what the fight is all about.

As a substantive matter, the facts obviously cut against Republicans and their hostage tactics. But as a political matter, the significance of the substance is muted by apparent public confusion.

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the editor of MaddowBlog and an MSNBC political contributor. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”

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