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NYT Poll:

Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they would support raising taxes on households making more than $250,000 to pay for tax cuts or government programs for people making less than that amount. Only 38 percent called it a bad idea. Both Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidates, have made proposals along these lines.

More broadly, 43 percent of those surveyed said they would prefer a larger government that provided more services, which is tied for the highest such number since The Times and CBS News began asking the question in 1991. But an identical 43 percent said they wanted a smaller government that provided fewer services.

Some comments… I’m sure a good number of Democrats are feeling pretty hopeful. What I’m seeing is that Bushes destroy support for smaller government, and that enthusiasm for bigger and smaller government waxes and wanes. As Matt notes “of course you can be riding high in 1991 and then the mood shifts by 1993.”

The first year of the poll, 1991, is the only year recorded in which support for bigger government, 43 percent, is stronger than for smaller government, 42 percent. This would be during George H.W. Bush’s term. Then what happened? Voters elected a moderate Democrat in 1992. The poll skips five years and then we see support for smaller government at 60 percent and support for bigger at 30 percent. That imbalance collapses, then surges again just before voters elect the second Bush and then more or less steadily withers away through George W. Bush’s two terms, which puts us more or less right where public opinion was toward the end of his Dad’s presidency. Democrats should be pretty wary, and not take this as a sign that the ground is ready for some kind of huge new government initiative. Unless something fundamental has changed in the determinants of public opinion, we ought to expect a resurgence in small government sentiment, and for all we know, Democratic overreaching is what primes it. Support for bigger government is as high as it gets, and support for smaller government is at it’s nadir.

An aside about the tax question… The language of “paying” for tax cuts with tax increases has got to be George Lakoff’s wet dream. What does this framing imply? That the size of the budget is some kind of axiomatic, immutable fact, and so there is no conceptual distinction between the two sides of the fiscal account. A reduction in inlays is indistinguishable from an increase in outlays. So tax cuts are just another kind of spending — just another kind of government benefit we’ve got to finance. Income thus becomes a political decision about who pays the government and who gets paid by the government. But I’m probably just banging my head against the wall.