S.C. Republican and Republican-leaning voters do not want cuts to Social Security, Medicare or defense — but they might be willing to pay more taxes to help balance the country’s budget, according to a new poll from Winthrop University.
Seventy-three percent of S.C. Republicans who receive Social Security and Medicare benefits say they are not willing to cut those programs in order to balance the budget.
And Republicans now working, who don’t yet receive those benefits? More than half say they still are not willing to see their future benefits cut or the retirement age raised.
More than half also say they do not want to see defense spending cut.
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Those three federal programs – Social Security, Medicare and defense – make up 53 percent of the 2012 proposed federal budget with its $3.8 trillion in spending, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. (Also, off the table, presumably, is the $434 million the federal government will pay in interest on the federal debt.)
But if those programs can’t be cut, what can be done to balance the federal budget?
One option, at least for S.C. Republicans, is to raise taxes.
Forty-seven percent of S.C. Republican and Republican-leaning voters surveyed said they did not think it was possible to balance the budget without a tax increase, while 45 percent said a tax increase is not necessary. Seven percent said they were not sure.
“That is surprising, simply because it goes against the echo chambers and punditry who are constantly saying, ‘No Republicans believe in any tax (hikes),’ ” said Scott Huffmon, a Winthrop University political science professor and director of The Winthrop Poll.
Why would S.C. Republicans, by far the majority party in conservative South Carolina, answer that way?
One explanation could be that nearly 1 million South Carolinians received Social Security benefits in 2010, according to the latest statistics. That’s roughly 20 percent of the state’s population.
Also, the Defense Department spent $7.4 billion in South Carolina in 2010.
In the Midlands alone, the direct and indirect economic impact of Shaw Air Force Base, Fort Jackson and McEntire Joint National Guard Base – including visitors and retirees moving here – is estimated at $7.1 billion a year, according to Ike McLeese, president of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
But Chad Connelly, chairman of the S.C. Republican Party, had another explanation: His party’s faithful are being misled.
Connelly questioned if the poll numbers “were real.” He also blamed the plurality of S.C. Republicans who say a tax increase will be needed on “the impact that media distortion and Democrat distortion” have had on public opinion.
“None of our reforms involve cutting people’s current benefits,” he said.
Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party, said the results were shocking because “even South Carolina Republicans agree with President Obama.”
“The five (S.C.) Republican congressmen who see themselves as Tea Party devotees ought to ... listen to the damn constituents,” Harpootlian said. “(Their constituents) are being a hell of a lot more mature than they are.”
However, U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Republican from Indian Land, said the results did not surprise him.
“I don’t think it’s possible to fix this problem politically without raising taxes,” he said.
But that position hinges on Mulvaney’s definition of a tax increase. Mulvaney said removing loopholes in the tax code that benefit some companies – but not others – would require those companies to pay more taxes. But he doesn’t see that as a tax increase.
“If we do our job on fixing the tax code, lowering the rates but broadening the base, it may result in more revenue to the government,” Mulvaney said. “And that does bother the extreme right wing of the party sometimes, who just want to try and starve the beast.
“(But) we are trying to bring fairness to the tax code and equity to the tax code.”
Not Tea Partiers, but influenced by it
Republicans have shifted to a fierce fiscal conservativism since 2008, when the country’s economy nearly collapsed and the federal government – first under Republican President George W. Bush and, later, under Democratic President Barack Obama – spent billions in taxpayer dollars to bail out private companies.
Much of that sentiment comes from the Tea Party, a loosely defined confederation of fiscal conservatives that has become one of the most visible and vocal wings of the GOP.
But, of the 596 self-identified S.C. Republicans and GOP leaners surveyed in The Winthrop Poll, only 28 percent identified themselves as a member of the Tea Party movement. However, 74 percent of those surveyed said they “generally agreed” with Tea Party principles.
Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint from Greenville is considered by many to be the Tea Party’s champion. At a speech last month to the Columbia Rotary Club, he echoed some of the poll’s sentiments when it comes to Social Security and Medicare.
“What we need to do to change things is convince them this is not Doomsday. We don’t have to cut benefits for people on Social Security or Medicare,” DeMint said. “We presented a 10-year balanced budget plan in the Senate, it did not touch Social Security or (Medicare).”
But when it comes to a tax increase, DeMint – like many of his Republican compatriots – is adamantly opposed.
That, also, is not surprising, according to Winthrop’s Huffmon.
“If you are a Republican and you think there is one or two places where a tax could go up, you would quickly be excoriated by the far right and super fiscal conservative wing of your party,” he said.
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