Other surveys have found that Americans have wildly inaccurate notions about federal spending. Asked how much of the budget is devoted to foreign aid, the average guess in a World Public Opinion Research poll was 27 percent. In fact, it's about 1 percent.
A Marist poll brings even more disturbing news. Among self-identified tea party supporters, 70 percent oppose cutting Medicare or Medicaid in order to "deal with the federal budget deficit." Ouch.
Now, it's true that these polls reflect only the state of play at this moment -- before anyone has had a chance to explain how a voucher plan for Medicare would work, for example, and without clarifications about block-granting Medicaid. Still, it suggests that Republicans who hope to reform Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- to save the programs -- will have a heavy lift.
So what is a fiscally responsible, intellectually honest Republican to do? Tell voters the truth about the fiscal train wreck ahead. Assemble those charts showing that interest on the debt will, in the space of a decade, exceed defense spending. Clarify that reforming Medicare is not a choice but a necessity. The average House Republican is not as conversant with budget and tax issues as Rep. Paul Ryan. They need to study up because, as President Obama demonstrated in his George Washington University speech, the Democrats are not partners in seeking to curb debt and avoid a credit crisis. They are in full "Mediscare" mode.
The battle lines for 2012 are now clear: The very difficult task of confronting our debt, which should be a bipartisan project, falls to just one party. Republicans will have a better shot at success if they remember that reducing future spending, while essential, will never be popular. The message of avoiding fiscal catastrophe must be paired with promoting economic growth in the private sector. Cutting government and promoting jobs and growth are two sides of the same coin.
But Republicans cannot be under any illusions. Recent polling suggests that "granny in the snow" may still elect Democrats.