If Congress implements the Panetta-Burns plan, some Americans seem to believe, lawmakers will have only themselves to blame. Luckily, the Panetta-Burns plan doesn’t exist — except as a warning that legislators shouldn’t put too much stock in individual polls on complicated issues.
In a recent survey of 700 voters by Public Policy Polling, 23 percent of respondents said they supported the Bowles-Simpson plan — the broad deficit-reduction framework developed by a commission appointed by President Obama — while 16 percent opposed it. But it’s not clear how deep or sincere these feelings are. For when the polling firm also asked about a fictitious Panetta-Burns plan, 8 percent of voters said they favored it, while 17 percent opposed it. Are one-sixth of voters oddly skeptical of Leon Panetta, President Obama’s defense secretary? Did they think “Burns” referred to C. Montgomery Burns, Homer Simpson’s evilly plutocratic boss?
Asking voters about fake policies is a cheeky old trick in polling. In 1947, a surveyor famously asked a sample of Americans about the fictitious Metallic Metals Act. A whopping 70 percent of respondents endorsed one of several highly detailed views of the measure — for instance, that it was a good idea but should be left up to individual states.
Americans today may at least be more willing to admit their limits; to their credit, 75 percent of people interviewed by Public Policy Polling offered no opinion about the Panetta-Burns plan. Either way, it’s a sign that, as Democrats and Republicans wrangle over which combination of taxes, spending cuts, and entitlement reforms will right the nation’s finances, polls will help only so much in guiding their choices. Just ask Panetta and Burns.