To state the obvious, in politics, if you are unpopular, you are weaker politically. One way to become unpopular can be to work against the people's will. But sometimes I believe the people’s will and the public good may not be the same thing. Therefore, there can be circumstances in which a political leader acts on behalf of the public good, yet may be unpopular at the same time. This makes it harder for a political leader to be effective. To summarize, it’s easier to be effective when you are popular; it’s easier to be popular when you do what the polls suggest.
Which brings us to the current stalemate in Washington. See the National Journal poll or the Post poll, which both make plain that people largely support the economic positions most often identified with President Obama and the Democrats.
It's easy to see that voters want it all. That is, polls confirm people generally support taxing someone else, and our entitlement programs are universally popular. It's also reasonable to believe that voters understand no one can have it all without consequences. These polls don’t say so, but you have to assume people are against a weak economy, extremely poor job prospects for themselves and their children, and spending more than we should. So what’s a Republican to do? Give in to the polls? Tailor every position every day to avoid criticism? Of course not.
Politics has become daily combat with real-time analysis that keeps a running tally of who's winning and who's losing. It'll take discipline to step back from that and stick to principles, even while poll numbers are frantically waved by the GOP's opponents on the outside and by our handwringers inside.
Republicans need to stick to the positions that make us the pro-growth, smaller government, low-tax party. Our leaders and our arguments must be thoughtful, intellectually honest and highly visible. It is a mistake to try to avoid all criticism. We have to believe that the merits of our positions, the rational analysis that we supply and the truthfulness of our math will all eventually be compelling to those who tune in to the debate.
It'll take discipline to learn the subject matter and the details of our own positions, and to avoid the clichéd talking points that are churned out by dozens of offices in Washington every day. But the GOP's only defense — and offense, for that matter — is our certainty that our economy is vulnerable, that we have to achieve growth and that spending more than we take in will produce a day of reckoning that could end America as we know it.
The stakes are high. We must break some of our bad political habits and recognize we have a disadvantage both in what the polls teach us and in the superiority of the White House messenger and message machine. We need a more honest, disciplined message — even though it is more of an essay than a bumper sticker, and as every Insider reader knows, in politics, a bumper sticker beats an essay. For the time being, the other side has the bumper sticker. House Speaker John Boehner has moved in the right direction and we need more leaders to follow him.