Conservatives are fond of claiming the United States as a “center-right country,” but public opinion polling routinely shows a country of people who amenable—if not enthusiastic—about liberal solutions to public policy problems. For example, in a recent Pew survey , when asked what they would support to cut the deficit, large majorities support a grab bag of liberal policies: raising the Social Security contribution cap, raising taxes on high-income earners, reducing our military presence, and limiting tax deductions for large corporations. Here's a chart showing the survey results:
This holds true even when broken down by partisan affiliation. Along with 73 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of independents, 54 percent of Republicans support the Social Security contribution cap. Likewise, 56 percent of Republicans want to reduce our military commitments abroad, and 62 percent want to limit tax deductions for large corporations.
In other words, the deficit conversation in Washington—with it’s near-obsessive focus on spending cuts above all other solutions—is wildly out-of-sync with public preferences. These results beg a few questions: first, why can Republicans demand huge spending cuts and play brinksmanship with the debt ceiling, when most Republican voters prefer other policies to reduce the deficit?
If I had to hazard a guess, it’s this: Republican voters want to see a smaller government, and are probably willing to trust political elites who promise a path to smaller government. In the abstract, they might prefer more liberal solutions, but when push comes to shove, they’re willing to accept the solutions provided by party leaders and like-minded partisans. As for debt ceiling brinksmanship, Republicans voters will support it because they themselves aren’t particularly thrilled  about lifting the debt limit.
The second question is a little more straightforward: why are Democrats so timid on liberal policies when they have the public behind them? Simply put, the Democratic Party doesn’t have the ideological or demographic uniformity of the GOP. Given its wide geographic base (everywhere from the Northeast and upper South, to the West Coast and large parts of the Southwest) and extremely diverse constituency, you can think of the Democratic Party as a not-GOP. In other words, it includes everyone who—for one reason or another—won’t support the Republican Party.
The upside is that this helps for winning national elections. The downside is this makes for an unruly party, with a huge number of (often opposed) interest groups, and few areas of consensus. Most liberals might support a deficit deal that hastened withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, but liberals aren’t a majority constituency in the Democratic Party – they’re not even a plurality. This isn’t to excuse cowardice and timidity from Democratic lawmakers, but the sheer fact of ideological diversity means that they can’t present a unified front of liberalism, even if they wanted to.
In any case, the big lesson from this survey is pretty straightforward: public opinion is important, but we shouldn’t overestimate its importance to debates in Washington. Often, what the public thinks is ancillary to what actually happens.