The debate to balance the federal budget and reduce the nation's debt has raged in recent weeks, with Democrats and Republicans arguing about spending, taxes and entitlements such as Medicare.
Paul Krugman wrote recently in his New York Times column that a knock-down, drag-out fight may be inevitable, given that the two parties have such different visions for the country.
"So when pundits call on the parties to sit down together and talk, the obvious question is, what are they supposed to talk about? Where’s the common ground?" Krugman wrote.
Krugman, who sides with the Democrats over Republicans on budget issues, said the Democrats have a winning case to present to the public.
"For what it’s worth, polls suggest that the public’s priorities are nothing like those embodied in the Republican budget," Krugman said. "Large majorities support higher, not lower, taxes on the wealthy. Large majorities — including a majority of Republicans — also oppose major changes to Medicare. Of course, the poll that matters is the one on Election Day. But that’s all the more reason to make the 2012 election a clear choice between visions."
We decided to check Krugman’s numbers on the polls after a reader asked us to look into it. Let’s take the issues one at a time.
"Large majorities support higher, not lower, taxes on the wealthy."
Different polls phrase the question differently, but the bottom line is the same. We found three recent polls that back up Krugman’s point.
"In order to reduce the national debt, would you support or oppose raising taxes on Americans with incomes over 250 thousand dollars a year?" Support: 72 percent. Oppose: 27 percent. Unsure: 1 percent. (ABC News/Washington Post Poll. April 14-17, 2011)
"Do you support or oppose doing each of the following to deal with the federal budget deficit? … Increase taxes on income over $250,000." Support: 64 percent. Oppose: 33 percent. Unsure: 3 percent. (McClatchy-Marist Poll. April 10-14, 2011.)
"Now looking ahead to next year's federal budget, do you think it should or should not include higher taxes for families with household incomes of $250,000 and above?" Should: 59 percent. Should not: 37 percent. Unsure: 4 percent. (USA Today/Gallup Poll. April 11, 2011.)
Krugman seems on firm ground here.
Large majorities "also oppose major changes to Medicare."
Again, we found several recent poll questions addressing this point.
"In order to reduce the national debt, would you support or oppose cutting spending on Medicare, which is the government health insurance program for the elderly?" Oppose: 78 percent. Support: 21 percent. Unsure: 1 percent. (ABC News/Washington Post Poll. April 14-17, 2011.)
"I'm going to read you two statements about the future of the Medicare program. After I read both statements, please tell me which one comes closer to your own view. Medicare should remain as it is today, with a defined set of benefits for people over 65. OR, Medicare should be changed so that people over 65 would receive a check or voucher from the government each year for a fixed amount they can use to shop for their own private health insurance policy." Should remain as is: 65 percent. Should be changed: 34 percent. Unsure: 2 percent. (Also from the ABC News/Washington Post Poll. April 14-17, 2011.)
"Do you think the government should completely overhaul Medicare to control the cost of the program, make major changes to Medicare but not completely overhaul it, make minor changes to Medicare, or should the government not try to control the costs of Medicare?" Not try to control costs: 27 percent. Minor changes: 34 percent. Major changes: 18 percent. Completely overhaul: 13 percent. Unsure: 8 percent. (USA Today/Gallup Poll. April 11, 2011.)
"In order to reduce the federal budget deficit, would you be willing or not willing to reduce spending on Medicare, the government health insurance program for seniors?" Not willing: 76 percent. Willing: 22 percent. Don't know/No answer: 2 percent. (CBS News Poll. March 18-21, 2011.)
"Do you think it will be necessary to cut spending on Medicare, the federal government health care program for seniors, in order to significantly reduce the federal budget deficit?" No: 54 percent. No opinion: 27 percent. Yes: 18 percent. Not sure: 1 percent. (NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll. Feb. 24-26, 2011.)
"For each (government program), please tell me if you think significantly cutting the funding is totally acceptable, mostly acceptable, mostly unacceptable, totally unacceptable: Medicare." Totally unacceptable: 46 percent. Mostly unacceptable: 30 percent. Mostly acceptable: 16 percent. Totally acceptable: 7 percent. Unsure: 1 percent. (Also from NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll. Feb. 24-26, 2011.)
Those numbers express widespread opposition to cutting Medicare. And indeed, when the Wall Street Journal reported its results in February, Republican pollster Bill McInturff said the results were "a huge flashing yellow sign for Republicans on how much preparation will be needed if they propose to change Social Security and Medicare."
As we were working on this report, a new poll was released suggesting that the public might not be so opposed to changes in Medicare. We should note that these results were released publicly after Krugman's column appeared. As explained in the Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter, our rulings are based on the information known at the time the person made the remarks.
"In order to reduce the budget deficit, it has been proposed that Medicare should be changed from a program in which the government pays doctors and hospitals for treating seniors to a program in which the government helps seniors purchase private health insurance. Would you approve or disapprove of changing Medicare in this way?" Approve: 47 percent. Disapprove: 41 percent. Don't Know/No answer: 12 percent. (New York Times/CBS News Poll. April 15-20, 2011.)
The New York Times noted in its story that the response was at odds with other recent polls, and concluded that results may vary depending on how the question was asked.
When we contacted Krugman for a comment, he noted that the poll came out after his column was published and that it's at odds with the other previous polls. "I strongly suspect that the Times result is an outlier -- it looks so different from everything else we're hearing," Krugman said via e-mail.
We should note that Krugman parenthetically added that a majority of Republicans also opposed major changes to Medicare. We were not able to find party breakdowns for all of these polls, but the ones we did see showed that Republicans opposed changes to Medicare as well. A CBS News Poll from March showed that 67 percent of Republicans were not willing to reduce spending on Medicare. In the USA Today/Gallup poll, 33 percent of Republicans said the government should not try to control the costs of Medicare, with another 28 percent of Republicans said the government should make only minor changes.
Krugman said that "large majorities" support support higher, not lower, taxes on the wealthy, and recent polls support that point. On Medicare, several polls suggest that large majorities, including a majority of Republicans, oppose major changes to the program. One poll, released after Krugman wrote his column, showed an advantage for the Ryan plan. But the preponderance of evidence at the time Krugman made his statement bears him out. We rate his statement True.
The New York Times, Let’s Not Be Civil, column by Paul Krugman, April 18, 2011
ABC News/Washington Post Poll, April 14-17, 2011
McClatchy-Marist Poll, April 10-14, 2011
USA Today/Gallup Poll, April 11, 2011
CBS News Poll, March 18-21, 2011
NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll, Feb. 24-26, 2011
The New York Times, Nation’s Mood at Lowest Level in Two Years, Poll Shows, April 21, 2011
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