Most Nebraskans don't breathe no-new-taxes fire.
And they blame each party equally — and a lot — for the partisan gridlock in Congress.
Taken together, their responses in The World-Herald Poll — if not quite a ringing mandate for compromise — at least reflect a less extreme approach to the problem of balancing the federal budget than the poles of opinion on Capitol Hill.
To be sure, when asked “How would you balance the federal budget?” Nebraskans showed a strong preference for spending cuts. Yet most — including most Republicans — chose options that included at least some tax increases.
GOP leaders in Washington? Not so much.
Republicans have spent this campaign season touting their disgust at the idea of tax hikes. Most Republicans in Congress have signed a pledge, promoted by Grover Norquist's lobbying group Americans for Tax Reform, to “oppose any and all efforts” to raise taxes.
The difference between what red-state Nebraskans told the pollsters and what no-tax-hike candidates say on the stump “is heartening in a way,” said Graham Ramsden, head of Creighton University's political science department and a specialist in U.S. electoral behavior.
“A bit of prairie realism, perhaps.”
Ramsden said most U.S. citizens, once they are shown real budget numbers — how much is spent on what — come to the same conclusion as past bipartisan panels of experts: that balancing the budget requires some combination of cutting spending and raising more revenue.
On the other hand, before you picture Nebraskans as a tide of pragmatic compromisers, local political analysts suggest you take the results with a grain of salt.
» Nebraskans show a strong tilt — just like Republican House Speaker John Boehner to Democratic President Barack Obama — toward the spending-cut side of the ledger.
Randall Adkins, chairman of the political science department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, sees a strong anti-tax bent in the data, with nearly a quarter of Nebraskans saying they would use spending cuts alone to reach a balanced budget. Only 1 percent said they would balance the budget exclusively with more taxes.
Adkins also said people are more apt to oppose a tax hike if they know it would hit them. Note that on a “Buffett Rule” poll question — “Do you favor or oppose a 30 percent minimum tax on million-dollar-plus earners?” — a strong majority of Nebraskans liked the idea of a tax that most wouldn't have to pay.
» Asked “Who do you feel is to blame for the partisan gridlock in Washington?” most Nebraskans said both parties combined were to blame — which could be interpreted as a hunger for compromise, like telling two squabbling children that you don't care who started it, knock it off.
More likely, Adkins said, the numbers simply reflect a general disgust with all incumbents, a frustrated cry of “a plague on both your houses.”
Ramsden dryly added that the poll didn't ask whether voters themselves ought to be blamed for having elected so many no-compromise lawmakers.
» Consider another poll question, the classic “how would you rate” each party's lawmakers: If you were hunting for signs of voters' thirst for compromise, you might check to see whether people took a dim view of their own party's leadership.
Nope. Nebraska Republicans rate their party's members of Congress pretty highly: 56 percent said they had a favorable impression. Only 14 percent said unfavorable. And Nebraska Democrats gave 45 percent favorable and 18 percent unfavorable ratings to their party's members.
That's not exactly the picture of a hang-our-leaders, let's-cut-a-deal rebellion.
Bottom line, said the two Omaha political scientists: The difference between the moderation of the poll results and the hard line that politicians preach on the stump is a reflection of modern campaigning.
Adkins said the numbers tell him that “if I'm a politician trying to win election in Nebraska, I talk about spending cuts. If I'm a politician trying to solve the deficit, I leave myself room to compromise.”
Ramsden said GOP candidates are more likely to talk in absolutes on taxes because they fear challenges from their party's right wing.
“I think if you were to give all Republicans in Washington a truth serum,” he said, they would sound more willing to compromise on the budget.
Room to compromise has been an issue in Nebraska's Senate race between Republican Deb Fischer and Democrat Bob Kerrey.
Fischer has taken the Norquist pledge to oppose any tax hike. Kerrey has said that would make it impossible for her to accept the sort of compromise needed to balance the budget.
Norquist's group claims that all of Nebraska's congressional delegation has taken the pledge. But Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Lincoln has asked to be taken off the list, calling the pledge too restrictive.
The statewide poll of 800 registered voters was conducted Sept. 17 through 20. Conducted by Wiese Research Associates of Omaha, it had an error margin of 3.5 percentage points.
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Americans for Tax Reform, a lobbying group run by conservative activist Grover Norquist, opposes all tax increases and in every campaign since 1986 has asked politicians to pledge likewise. It says these Nebraskans have done so:
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, Republican. He has asked to be removed from the pledge list, finding it too restrictive.
Rep. Lee Terry, Republican. He has said he would not feel bound if a tax increase were absolutely necessary.
Rep. Adrian Smith, Republican.
Sen. Mike Johanns, Republican. He has since called the pledge “meaningless,” saying Norquist interprets it too rigidly.
Sen. Ben Nelson, Democrat. However, Norquist's group says he broke the pledge by voting for the health care law. Of the candidates competing to replace him, Republican Deb Fischer has signed the pledge.