Are Americans Ready for a Real Debate on the Size of Government?

August 15, 2012

Americans are not ready to debate the size and scope of the federal government, pollsters say, despite the presidential campaign’s sudden detour toward issues such as the future of Medicare, Social Security, and the country’s deficit.

“The average citizen would rather close down a lot of buildings in D.C. than give up Medicare,” says Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Everyone has a family member in retirement that’s on Medicare or Social Security.”

And yet here we are, roughly three months away from the election, debating the finer points of Medicare versus the Affordable Care Act; the fate of Social Security; and the way these entitlement programs and their costly trajectories contribute to the growing deficit.

“Well, in theory, people want to see something done,” says Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. “But, when you get down to it, there’s a lot of resistance to sacrifice.”

Sacrifice isn’t typically a buzzword trotted out on the campaign trail to give voters a sense of optimism about the country’s future. Yet, the Republicans prompted this shift in topic by adding Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to the ticket as the vice presidential nominee. He’s practically Mr. Entitlement and Deficit Man.

As the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan passed two controversial budgets through the chamber that Democrats decry for the way they would dismantle the social safety net, slash tax rates, and turn Medicare into a voucher program after the year 2023. This would limit the federal government’s spending on health care, but critics worry it could also shift those extra, growing costs onto seniors.

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