In his contribution to the debate over whether there is a group of open-minded "reformed" conservatives, Paul Krugman misrepresents the central focus of the left-right divide in national politics. He tells readers:
"Start with the proposition that there is a legitimate left-right divide in U.S. politics, built around a real issue: how extensive should be make our social safety net, and (hence) how much do we need to raise in taxes? This is ultimately a values issue, with no right answer."
This is not an accurate characterization of the left-right divide in U.S. politics since there is actually little difference between Republicans and Democrats or self-described conservatives and liberals in their support of the key components of the social safety net: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and even unemployment insurance. Polls consistently show that the overwhelming majority of people across the political spectrum strongly support keeping these programs at their current level or even expanding them.
The main impulse for cutting back these programs comes from elites of both political parties who would like to pay less in taxes. There are also industry groups, who are generally more aligned with the Republicans, who support privatizing a larger portion of these programs in the hopes of getting more profits. Describing this privatization drive as a values issue would be a gross mischaracterization.
There are much smaller programs that are designed primarily to help the poor or near poor where there is a clearer partisan divide (e.g. TANF, SSI, WIC). While it may be more accurate to describe the debate over these programs as a values issue (with a strong racial component), they amount to a relatively small portion of government budgets. These programs may be important to the people directly affected, but they are not central to debates over the budget.
It is plausible to argue that these anti-poverty programs have taken an outsize role in national debates, but this is largely because the electorate is poorly informed about their size. In that case the debate is not over values (I would be for cutting back TANF too if I thought it was one-third of the federal budget), but simply an issue of misinformation.
(Thanks to Robert Salzberg for calling this one to my attention.)