Archive for Monday, July 25, 2011

When the middle wakes up, look out

July 25, 2011


— It was Ed Miliband, the British Labor Party leader, who posed the haunting question in Wednesday’s parliamentary debate about the phone-hacking scandal: “Why didn’t more of us speak out about this earlier?”

Miliband blamed political intimidation by Rupert Murdoch’s press empire: “The answer is, of course, what we all know and used to be afraid to say: News International was too powerful.” But that doesn’t explain the sudden discontinuity — how a story went from inaction to outrage.

The basic facts of the phone-hacking scandal were hardly a secret. A parliamentary inquiry last year showed the extent of the snooping and suggested that there had been a cover-up by the police and News International. Yet British politicians didn’t take action until a sickening new fact was added to the mix: The hacking victims had included a 13-year-old murder victim named Milly Dowler.

This was the tipping point. It was like the collapse of a bridge that had stood solid as millions of vehicles rumbled across, but ruptured with the addition of one more car. Just so, the tale of Milly Dowler produced a turn in public opinion, a galvanizing jolt to the politicians and a catastrophic event for Murdoch.

Maybe it’s stretching things, but I see a similar inflection point in the American public’s attitude about the debt-limit extension. For months, President Obama has been warning that GOP brinksmanship was dangerous. Along with every responsible economist and business leader, the president said it was reckless to hold hostage the nation’s creditworthiness. Republicans kept barreling through this flashing yellow light.

But all of a sudden, the light turned red. Polling by The Washington Post and other organizations showed a sharp increase in public worry about the potential cost of the debt-limit shenanigans.

What is happening in these opinion swings that move an issue from the usual “ho-hum” to a level of concern that forces political action? I asked pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, who has been sampling opinion in America and abroad for decades.

Kohut calls it the “we’ve-had-enough factor.” He explains: “All of a sudden, people realize, Holy Moly, this is really bad! Prior to that, they had looked the other way.” The key change agents are the “independents” in the middle. Partisans on either side already know what they think — whether it’s a question in Britain about phone hacking or one in America about the debt limit. But folks in the middle take awhile to form their opinion; when they finally do, the balance tips decisively.

Big political changes reflect breaks in the smooth contour of opinion, especially among these independents. Kohut cites the public’s slowly rising support since the mid-1990s for the federal government’s role in solving problems. But that support broke after Obama pushed so hard for health care legislation in 2009, without a national consensus. By the fall of 2010, among independents, there was an 11 percentage point increase in mistrust for Washington compared to 2006, and a 26-point increase in support for the GOP’s ability to reduce the budget deficit. This shift among independents was the sea change behind the 2010 congressional elections.

Sometimes there is a galvanizing fact that drives the shift in opinion — a riveting new detail such as the phone hacking of a 13-year-old girl that breaks through the fog and makes the general public pay attention. Most people don’t usually follow politics all that closely. But in such moments, says Jon Cohen, The Washington Post’s director of polling, “the reality becomes clear, and people react to facts on the ground.”

This is what finally happened on the debt-limit debate, which initially was abstract and confusing but became more concrete. Cohen notes that as the Aug. 2 deadline approached, Americans began to focus on the potential costs of a default. A Post poll last week found that 80 percent of Republicans believed a default would cause “serious harm” to the economy. Public opinion data like these changed the Washington debate.

The lesson is that the great slumbering middle still makes the decisive difference in politics, when it pays attention. Partisan voices may seem to dominate the debate. But the changes that matter — as when the British public decides it’s fed up with Rupert Murdoch’s brand of journalism, or when the American public demands that politicians stop playing games with the budget — happen because people in the center get angry and demand action.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is


verity 2 years, 8 months ago

Doesn't matter how low President Obama's approval ratings go. If the Republicans can't come up with somebody people think will be better, he will win re-election.


ObamaCairWaiver 2 years, 8 months ago

When the middle class wakes up?

Which half? The half that pay federal taxes or the half that doesn't?


BornAgainAmerican 2 years, 8 months ago

Obama approval rating just keeps on sliding. Latest Rasmussen poll shows strongly approve = 23%, strongly disapprove = 44%. Can we hold the election today?


BornAgainAmerican 2 years, 8 months ago

Obama's press conference: Blame Bush, invoke Reagan (imagine that!), class warfare, scare seniors, and insist on tases on the weallthy which has not been a part of the negotiations since last Friday. Mr. President (and I use the term loosely), pleawse pay attention and keep up. Forget your campaigning and solve this problem! Sheeesh!!!


Daffy 2 years, 8 months ago

My microeconomics cannot pay for Obama's macroeconomics any longer. I am joining the party of No.


ObamaCairWaiver 2 years, 8 months ago


Billionaire and hedge fund manager Howard Marks says the U.S. debt problem will lower the standard of living for everyone in America, The Business Insider reports.

"In addition to balancing the budget and growing the economy, I think we have to accept that the coming decades are likely to see U.S. standards of living decline relative to the rest of the world," Marks writes in a letter to investors.

"Unless our goods offer a better cost/benefit bargain, there’s no reason why American workers should continue to enjoy the same lifestyle advantage over workers in other countries.”

"I just don’t expect to hear many politicians own up to this reality on the stump."

Washington’s spending has recently been higher as a percentage of the nation’s economic output than at any time since World War II, notes Marks, but Washington’s revenues are the lowest in more than 60 years.

"We have no choice but to raise the debt ceiling and keep borrowing in the short-term," says Marks, adding that current talks are unlikely to bring much fundamental progress because politicians are too concerned about getting re-elected to compromise.

Though the years in which the government hasn’t run a deficit have been by far the exception of late, not the rule, Marks says that taking action to reduce the deficit and related borrowing – be it through reduced spending or increased revenues – would further depress the economy.

Bloomberg reports that Republicans have challenged a presidential veto threat by preparing for a short-term extension of the U.S. debt limit, hardening partisan differences in the face of warnings that a stalemate risks roiling financial markets.


rockchalk1977 2 years, 8 months ago

In related news, a South African health official says a man awoke to find himself in a morgue fridge nearly a day after his family thought he had died. The man awoke Sunday afternoon, 21 hours after his family called in an undertaker who sent him to the morgue after an asthma attack. The man started yelling, prompting morgue workers to run away in fear.


tomatogrower 2 years, 8 months ago

He's right. The middle is waking up in Kansas, and Brownback and his cronies are going to be run out of the state. I'll bet his Florida buddies still have their homes there. Maybe they will buy Brownback a house and make sure he gets a high paying job. I think I'll start a count down clock for Brownback's administration.


Richard Heckler 2 years, 8 months ago

Congress should be fighting for:

  1. eliminating the $4,000 automatic raise going to congress annually

  2. allowing members of congress to pay for all of their medical insurance @ 20K per year

  3. no more special interest funding of any elections

  4. term limits = no more than 4 years

  5. Providing all disabled veterans with 100% coverage by way of Medicare no matter what = the best care on earth for veterans

  6. Hands Off Medicare AND Social Security

Hands Off Medicare! Healthcare-NOW! is fighting back! The deficit commission is meeting behind closed doors regularly to balance the nation's budget on the backs of working people looking to the programs that keep us from financial devastation – social security and Medicare.

We say cuts to these important programs are "OFF THE TABLE."

More about Social security


cato_the_elder 2 years, 8 months ago

"But the "fact" that keeps being repeated over and over again is making an analogy between one's personal finances and large scale economics. They are not the same. What is good for your personal finances is not necessarily the same as what is good for finances on a large scale."

Another brainwashed Samuelson victim.


verity 2 years, 8 months ago

You're right, Bozo. As I recall, there was very strong support for single payer and we, the people, were betrayed by corporate money and those who are on the take (pretty much all politicians it seems).

But the "fact" that keeps being repeated over and over again is making an analogy between one's personal finances and large scale economics. They are not the same. What is good for your personal finances is not necessarily the same as what is good for finances on a large scale. Economics is a complex issue and, of course, outcomes are not entirely predictable. We can, however, make some predictions on what has happened in the past---yet we continue on the path that would seem to be leading us to economic collapse.

It ain't gona be pretty, folks.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 8 months ago

" But that support broke after Obama pushed so hard for health care legislation in 2009, without a national consensus."

Not true. There was actually strong support for a public option, even single payer, but the powers that be on Wall Street and elsewhere would have no part of it, and Obama and the Democrats obliged by adopting long-standing Republican proposals, while Republicans demagogued from the sidelines (well, from Fox News.)


deathpenaltyliberal 2 years, 8 months ago

Boehner and Cantor need to stop crying and whining and agree with the Obama plan for real deficit reduction.


BornAgainAmerican 2 years, 8 months ago

The fact is, we need to stop blaming everyone and fix the mess. Obama appears to be fighting the very measures necessary to get us back on track.


cato_the_elder 2 years, 8 months ago

Whine all you want, moonbats. The fact is that Obama is a rank hypocrite.


deathpenaltyliberal 2 years, 8 months ago

"cato_the_elder (anonymous) says… ... Who delivered this speech? Senator Barack Obama, on March 16, 2006. The transcript is in the Congressional Record: "

More tripe from the partisan ranks. Where was your concern back in 2001 when Republicans started this debt binge?

Yeah, that's what I thought.


cato_the_elder 2 years, 8 months ago

From a speech delivered by a U.S. Senator on the floor of the Senate:

"The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can't pay its own bills. It is a sign that we now depend on ongoing financial assistance from foreign countries to finance our government's reckless fiscal policies.

"Over the past 5 years, our federal debt has increased by $3.5 trillion to $8.6 trillion. That is "trillion" with a "T." That is money that we have borrowed from the Social Security trust fund, borrowed from China and Japan, borrowed from American taxpayers. And over the next 5 years, the President's budget will increase the debt by almost another $3.5 trillion.

"Numbers that large are sometimes hard to understand. Some people may wonder why they matter. Here is why:

"This year, the Federal Government will spend $220 billion on interest. That is more money to pay interest on our national debt than we'll spend on Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program. That is more money to pay interest on our debt this year than we will spend on education, homeland security, transportation, and veterans benefits combined.

"And the cost of our debt is one of the fastest growing expenses in the Federal budget. This rising debt is a hidden domestic enemy, robbing our cities and States of critical investments in infrastructure like bridges, ports, and levees; robbing our families and our children of critical investments in education and health care reform; robbing our seniors of the retirement and health security they have counted on.

"Every dollar we pay in interest is a dollar that is not going to investment in America's priorities. Instead, interest payments are a significant tax on all Americans a debt tax that Washington doesn't want to talk about. If Washington were serious about honest tax relief in this country, we would see an effort to reduce our national debt by returning to responsible fiscal policies.

"Our debt also matters internationally. Now, there is nothing wrong with borrowing from foreign countries. But we must remember that the more we depend on foreign nations to lend us money, the more our economic security is tied to the whims of foreign leaders whose interests might not be aligned with ours.

"Increasing America's debt weakens us domestically and internationally. Leadership means that ‘‘the buck stops here.'' Instead, Washington is shifting the burden of bad choices today onto the backs of our children and grandchildren. America has a debt problem and a failure of leadership. Americans deserve better.

"I therefore intend to oppose the effort to increase America's debt limit."

Who delivered this speech? Senator Barack Obama, on March 16, 2006. The transcript is in the Congressional Record:


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