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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 12/15/2010

The political problem with the deficit

By Chris Cillizza

1. None of the nine most-mentioned options for solving -- or at least addressing -- the nation's long-term debt issues garner majority support in a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, data that suggests the tremendous political problems inherent in trying to address the country's fiscal health.

Of the nine choices offered, only three take anywhere close to a majority. Reducing Social Security benefits for wealthy retirees garners 49 percent support as does eliminating the mortgage interest tax deduction for mortgages over $500,000 and for second homes. Forty-eight percent of the sample support a gradual increase in the age at which people are eligible for full Social Security benefits.

Other proposals are far less popular. Eliminating the tax deduction parents can take for children under 18 received just 34 percent while just 21 percent of people support at 15 cent increase in the gasoline tax.

Contrast those numbers with the fact that a majority -- 56 percent -- of people in the poll said that the government should work to reduce the debt now while just 40 percent said it should wait until the economy improves and you begin to grasp the difficulties this issues poses for politicians.

On the one hand, voters want action now on reducing the nation's debt. On the other, not a single proposal that would begin those reductions garners a majority support.

Politicians -- particularly in the current climate of constant campaigning -- are reluctant to tackle any issue that the public doesn't seem inclined to support. (Look at the lukewarm -- at best -- reaction to President Obama's debt commission report for evidence of this reality.)

There is one (potential) silver lining in the poll. Two-thirds of people believe President Obama is "sincere" in his desire to reduce the deficit while 51 percent said the same of Republicans.

Given that the public distrusts politicians on just about everything, those numbers provide a hint of optimism. Still, with not even a single deficit reduction proposal able to crest 50 percent support, it will be a long political slog to address the country's debt problem.

2. The 2012 presidential primary jockeying has yet to begin in earnest, but in the meantime, plenty of White House aspirants are weighing in on the ongoing congressional debate over extending the Bush-era tax cuts.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) on Tuesday announced that he opposes the tax-cut deal negotiated between President Obama and congressional Republicans, writing in a USA Today op-ed that the "new, more conservative Congress should reach a better solution."

South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, meanwhile, took the opposite stance -- and took what appeared to have been a veiled shot at Romney.

"Now, it's easy to stand on the sidelines and to criticize this proposal," Thune said in a speech on the Senate floor. "And it's perhaps even politically expedient to stand on the sidelines and criticize this proposal. But let me make one thing very clear....advocating against this tax proposal is to advocate for a tax increase."

Another likely GOP presidential hopeful, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, said that he would vote against the tax deal when it comes to the House floor.

"At the end of the day, I've just come to the conclusion: the American people did not vote for more stimulus," Pence told Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity. "Therefore, I will not vote for this tax deal when it comes to the floor of the House of Representatives.

Pence and Romney's positions put them at odds with the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform. The group announced on Tuesday that it is backing the tax-cut deal, which it calls "tax hike prevention legislation."

"While not ideal legislation, it accomplishes the primary objective: namely, prevent tax hikes on anyone earning income," ATR said in a statement. "Without passage of this bill, everyone who pays income taxes will see their take home pay decline in their first January 2011 paycheck. The good outweighs the bad."

It's interesting to note that even among sitting senators (and not just potential White House contenders), the tax-cut deal has drawn bipartisan support as well as bipartisan opposition; the 15 senators who voted Monday against ending debate on the bill gave reasons that ran the ideological spectrum.

3. The first 2012 Republican debate in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire has been scheduled, with the GOP contenders slated to face off on June 7, 2011.

CNN, WMUR-TV and the New Hampshire Union Leader are jointly hosting the debate. The timing of the debate is nearly the same as the one the three organizations held in the 2008 cycle; that debate took place on June 5, 2007.

Politico and NBC News announced last month that they will co-host the first debate of the primary season at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in the spring of 2011. The Reagan Library also plans to sponsor a second debate on the eve of Super Tuesday.

The White House 2012 race has been slow to start, but potential contenders are increasingly testing the waters. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) is the latest potential White House hopeful to do so; he is slated to make an appearance on New Hampshire radio later this morning.

4. Former Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr (R) told The Fix Tuesday she has been encouraged to challenge Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) in 2012 but sounded decidedly undecided on the prospect of the race.

Orr, who lost reelection as governor to Nelson in 1990 and has been out of politics ever since, said she doesn't see herself running. But she also wouldn't dismiss it out of hand.

"I can't see any set of circumstances that would persuade me to get in there again," Orr said. "I'm flattered that I've had some people suggest that I do so. They think it would be an interesting rematch."

Asked whether that meant she was ruling out a challenge to Nelson, Orr said with a laugh: "Is that what I just said?"

"There are just some things that make that very interesting," she said, leaving the door open -- albeit slightly.

Orr was the first Republican woman to be elected governor. She lost to Nelson by about 4,000 votes in 1990 after serving one term in the governor's mansion.

State Attorney General Jon Bruning is already in the race and is considered the early frontrunner. State Treasurer Don Stenberg is expected to run for the Republican nod as well.

Nelson is considered the most endangered incumbent in the country in the 2012 cycle. He is also mentioned as a possible retiree.

5. A new poll suggests that Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) is Minnesota Republicans' first choice to take on Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) in 2012,

The Public Policy Polling survey shows 36 percent of Minnesota GOPers say Bachmann is their first choice to run against Klobuchar. Bachmann beats even Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (20 percent) and former Sen. Norm Coleman (14 percent). (PPP is a Democratic-leaning automated pollster.)

Also on Tuesday, the Huffington Post published a column by a Klobuchar supporter arguing that the incumbent is "concerned" about a Bachmann challenge.

"Amy Klobuchar isn't licking her chops at the prospect of a contest against Bachmann," wrote women's issues consultant Rebecca Sive. "She's not, because she's having to run for re-election when there are way, way too many Michelle Bachmanns floating around."

Bachmann, a leading figure in the national tea party movement, raised more money than any other House candidate in the 2010 cycle -- $13 million -- and she commands a nearly unrivaled following among conservative activists.

It's not clear, however, whether Bachmann could appeal to independents in a competitive general election race. PPP showed Klobuchar leading Bachmann by 15 points in a head-to-head matchup, and Klobuchar remains popular in the state.

With Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez

By Chris Cillizza  | December 15, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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