Does 'it's the budget, stupid' resonate with voters?

Paul Ryan (R-WI) (C) looks over documents during a hearing on Capitol Hill June 6, 2012 in Washington, D.C. Republican veep pick Paul Ryan a name for himself by proposing deep cuts in the federal budget. Will his focus on budget issues play well in November?

Kai Ryssdal: Thankfully, there's the presidential race to liven things up for us. And liven it has, in the person of a young conservative from Wisconsin by the name of Paul Ryan. The newly selected Republican running mate made, as you may know, a name for himself by proposing deep cuts in the federal budget and remaking Medicare and Medicaid along the way.

But in a land of 8.3 percent unemployment and sluggish growth, do the finer points of budget policy really resonate with voters? From Washington, Elizabeth Wynne Johnson takes a look.


Elizabeth Wynne Johnson: Does "it's the budget, stupid" have the same ring to it as "it's the economy, stupid"?

Stanford University political science professor Bruce Cain says this year both issues are going to be vying for voters' attention. Unemployment remains high. At the same time, a showdown looms over what to do about the so-called 'fiscal cliff' of automatic tax increases and spending cuts.

Bruce Cain: Stupid's going to have to be a little smarter this time around, because we're juggling a couple things.

Historically at election time, short-term fears about the economy have trumped longer-term concerns about the deficit.

Tom Schwartz: The one test case we have for that is the 1992 presidential election.

That's professor Tom Schwartz of Vanderbilt University. He's talking about Ross Perot, the iconoclastic budget hawk who took one in five votes that year on a platform of deficit reduction. Of course, the winner was Bill Clinton and his now-famous chestnut about the economy.

Schwartz: Eventually the decision really came down to the fact that you have an unemployment rate of about 7.5 percent and the econ seemed to be stuck, as well. And that proved to be much more crucial than anything to do with the budget deficit.

Cut to this year and Republicans and Democrats couldn't even agree on a budget for next year, choosing instead to fund the government at current levels until the end of the year. Still, Bruce Cain points out neither side, not even Paul Ryan's blueprint that passed the House, balance's the budget anytime soon.

Cain: It's really if you want somewhat larger government with deficits, or somewhat smaller government with deficits.

Which doesn't sound like such a "stark" choice. But that, says Cain, is why there's an old saying that "American politics is fought between 40-yard lines on a football field."

I'm Elizabeth Wynne Johnson for Marketplace.

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