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Not One Debate Question Last Night Touched on the Deficit

I should have touched on this quite a bit earlier in my discussion about the second debate today, because it’s really important. What this debate showed, beyond any shadow of a doubt, is that actual Americans, those who live outside the Beltway and don’t frequent think tank panel discussions or green rooms for cable news, don’t give a damn about the deficit. At all.

Here’s the debate transcript. There were 18 references to the deficit. They all came unprompted from the candidates, when they were asked about subjects like job prospects for college graduates, tax deductions, differentiations from George W. Bush, the Obama record, and wage competitiveness with China. 11 of the references came from Obama, and 7 from Romney. And none from any questioner.

The deficit was arguably the primary point of discussion in the Jim Lehrer debate, and Martha Raddatz featured it prominently as well. Voters don’t seem to care. They’re far more interested in things directly affecting their lives, like jobs, women’s rights, immigration, gun violence, gas prices, all topics that didn’t come up previously. Heck, even foreign policy, or at least the foreign policy situation of the moment in Libya, rated more pressing a concern than actuarial projections of the federal budget 20 or 30 years down the road.

I’m not always partial to the idea of the wisdom of crowds, but in this case, the political class would do well to follow the public. Polling consistently shows that voters don’t care about the deficit, and last night’s breadth of topics showed the same.

The group that consistently cares more about the deficit are, simply put, rich people. They don’t want their hard-earned massive tax cuts to get clawed back because the deficit gets so high that they can no longer use the “job creator” charade to shield themselves. So they obsess about the deficit, as a means to cut anything but their tax cuts. That’s the game. And the rich spend tens of millions to make that a reality, shaping opinions in Washington. The Democrats have sought to become the party of austerity in many ways to curry favor to a political class that demands so-called “fiscal responsibility.” But in reality, without our large deficit, we would not even have the recovery we have, a recovery that has outpaced the rest of the world, particularly in Europe, where they are mired in far more damaging austerity.

The more politicians realize that the public does not share the concern of the Beltway establishment on the deficit, the better off they – and the rest of us – will be.

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David Dayen

David Dayen