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Why Politicians Are Sensitive to Public Opinion on Same-Sex Marriage, Immigration, and Guns, But Not on the Economy

By       Message Robert B. Reich     Permalink
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Who says American politics is gridlocked? A tidal wave of politicians from both sides of the aisle who just a few years ago opposed same-sex marriage are now coming around to support it. Even if the Supreme Court were decide to do nothing about California's Proposition 8 or DOMA, it would seem only matter of time before both were repealed.

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A significant number of elected officials who had been against allowing undocumented immigrants to become American citizens is now talking about "charting a path" for them; a bipartisan group of senators is expected to present a draft bill April 8. 

Even a few who were staunch gun advocates are now sounding more reasonable about background checks.

It's nice to think logic and reason are finally catching up with our elected representatives, but the real explanation for these changes of heart is more prosaic: public opinion.

The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll finds support for marriage equality at the highest in the 10 years the question has been asked, with 58% of Americans in favor and 36 percent opposed.

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A similar swing has occurred in favor of immigration reform. A new Pew survey finds that 7-in-10 Americans (71%) say there should be a way for people in the United States illegally to remain in this country if they meet certain requirements, while 27% say they should not be allowed to stay legally. And most who favor providing illegal immigrants with some form of legal status --43% of the public -- say they should be allowed to apply for citizenship.

Support for gun control is less clear-cut, which may explain why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid won't seek a renewal of the assault-weapon ban. But polls show broad support for universal background checks, and for closing the so-called gun-show loophole.

It's possible that public opinion is being influenced by courageous political leaders who are urging action on these issues, but the reverse is more likely. Most politicians have a keen sense for tipping points in public opinion, when, say, support for equal marriage rights or immigration reform becomes broad-based, and advocates become sufficiently organized and mobilized to make life hell for officials who won't change their minds.

The exception is in the economic sphere, where public opinion seems beside the point.

Before January's fiscal cliff deal, for example, at least 60 percent of Americans, in poll after poll, expressed strong support for raising taxes on incomes over $250,000. As you recall, though, the deal locked in the Bush tax cut for everyone earning up to $400,000.

Yes, legislative deals require compromise. But why is it that deals over economic policy almost always compromise away what a majority of Americans want?

Most Americans weren't particularly concerned about the budget deficit to begin with. They've been far more concerned about jobs and wages. Yet maneuvers over the deficit have consistently trumped jobs and wages. 

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Recent polls show Americans would rather reduce the deficit by raising taxes than by cutting Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, education, and transportation. Yet Congress seems incapable of making that kind of deal.

Some 65 percent of Americans want to raise taxes on large corporations -- but both parties are heading in precisely the opposite direction.

Half of Americans favor a plan to break up Wall Street's 12 megabanks, which currently control 69 percent of the banking industry. Only 23 percent oppose such a plan (27 percent are undecided).

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http://robertreich.org/

Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.


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