WASHINGTON -- The opinion polls all seem to tell the same story -- that the voters blame both Congress and President Bush for the budget impasse although Congress perhaps more often than Bush. The clear message, a CBS News survey found, is that "political bickering" rather than a desire to face up to the problem has been the operative factor.
The implication, of course, is that members of Congress are just craven politicians who won't do what they should do. But what both the polls and recent political history also show is that the politicians have a reason to be craven -- the unwillingness of the voters themselves to face the reality that there is no such thing as a free lunch after 10 years of Reagan-Bush policies based on the premise that deficits don't matter.
The CBS survey found, for instance, huge majorities for raising the taxes of people with incomes over $100,000 a year (87 percent) and raising taxes on beer, wine and liquor (85 percent). That's the easy part. But the respondents split evenly on whether they would be willing to pay even $100 a year more in taxes and broke heavily against higher gasoline taxes (62 percent), reductions in government services even in health and education (68 percent) and raising fees paid by Medicare recipients (76 percent). Again, the message was clear: You can have your cake and eat it, too.
None of these findings comes as any surprise to any politician with even minimal sensitivity to his or her constituency. Such politicians know that President Bush's no-longer-operative promise of "no new taxes" was an important element of his election in 1988. They remember that Walter Mondale was pilloried in 1984 when he candidly admitted new taxes would be required to avoid the kind of budget debacle the country is facing now. They see governors with state fiscal crises being stoned for proposing hard solutions.
The result of all this is likely to make any final agreement on a new budget far more difficult than it may appear in the immediate aftermath of the deal between the White House and congressional leaders to take another crack at devising a plan within the same parameters as the one Congress rejected earlier.
The ones in political peril are the Democrats, who control the committees that now will try to produce the specifics of a budget. It will be up to the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees to settle on which taxes to raise by how much. And the betting is that the committees will make a deal with the White House to provide some form of capital gains tax relief in exchange for higher taxes on the wealthy.
But, even if the Democratic leaders can reach an agreement with Bush on taxes, what assurance do they have that the House Republicans who follow Newt Gingrich won't turn the issue against them with the old line about tax-and-spend liberal Democrats? It has worked in the past, so it is not surprising that Democrats fear it might work in the future.
The same is true on the spending side. Although the amount to be cut from Medicare has been reduced sharply, can any Democrat safely vote for reductions in that sacrosanct program without being afraid of having it thrown back in his face later?
It is obvious that Congress has invited the kind of pervasive suspicion that is abroad in the electorate today. Senators and congressmen have allowed the campaign-financing system to insulate themselves from challenge in many cases. They have failed to confront the deficit situation until there is now a clear and present danger of a serious recession.
But they are not the only ones to blame. President Bush obviously carries a large share of the responsibility. He spent eight years as vice president in an administration that followed policies he once called "voodoo economics." He used the tax issue to play on the voters' fears of facing reality.
But the voters have allowed themselves to be manipulated, too, by responding to television commercials directed at the lowest common denominator of political thinking.
Any politician tagged as taxer becomes an easy target for the Newt Gingriches of the world who still insist the nation can grow its way out of the federal deficit.
So now, the polls tell us, the voters are complaining that the politicians are interested only in saving their own skins. In other words, the voters are getting what they deserve.