It's all about angry voters who want things to get better, but aren't interested in those devilish details. Or as the New Yorker's James Surowiecki puts it in a smart column this week, "this new populism has stitched together incompatible concerns and goals into one 'I'm mad as hell' quilt. The people may have spoken. It's just not clear that they're making any sense." Not clear? The government should put the squeeze on those damn bankers - but wait a second, government has no business getting involved. Oh, and we want government to help get us jobs, but we also don't want to increase the deficit.
Of course, one can worry about rising long-term debt and still think that, right now, more deficit spending is crucial to the nascent recovery. But angry voters aren't that nuanced in their thinking: they want the government to tighten its belt and fight unemployment at the same time. Not that they believe that the government's efforts will do any good: three-quarters of Americans think that much of the money in the first stimulus program was wasted, perhaps because they can't see all the jobs that the stimulus saved, only the nearly eight million jobs that the economy has lost.
The anger is understandable, and voters are under no obligation to be consistent. But that doesn't make the new populism any less of a challenge politically, since, at the moment, voters will find something wrong whatever is done: if Democrats pass a stimulus package, they'll be lambasted for increasing the deficit; if they don't pass a stimulus, they'll be attacked for not caring about jobs.