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What if We're to Blame?

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By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

"Towering over Presidents and [Congress] . . . public opinion stands out, in the United States, as the great source of power, the master of servants who tremble before it."

-- James Bryce, "The American Commonwealth," 1888

The problem of American democracy is (of course) democracy. We are on the cusp of an election that commentators have already imbued with vast significance if Democrats recapture part or all of Congress -- or if they don't. But here's something that no one's saying: Regardless of who wins, it won't make much difference for most of our pressing problems. We won't have a major new budget policy, energy policy or immigration policy. The election might not even much affect the Iraq war.

In many ways, the election doesn't matter, and all the hoopla is an exercise in delusional hype. We could blame the prospect of divided government or a bipartisan leadership vacuum; both might promote paralysis. But the deeper cause is public opinion. As Bryce saw, our politicians are slaves to public opinion. Superficially, this should be reassuring. Democracy is working, because public attitudes remain the dominant influence -- not "big money" or "special interests," as many believe.

But it is not reassuring. The trouble is that public opinion is often ignorant, confused and contradictory; and so the policies it produces are often ignorant, confused and contradictory -- which means they're ineffective. The Catch-22 of American democracy is this: A government that mirrors public opinion offends public opinion by failing to do what it promises. People then conclude that the system has "failed."

The election is rightly seen as a referendum on the war. In late 2003, 67 percent of Americans thought that President Bush's invasion was the "right decision," reports the Pew Research Center; only 26 percent thought it the "wrong decision." Now views are split, 43 percent "right" and 47 percent "wrong." But it's public opinion, not the election outcome, that matters for policy. Indeed, it explains why the Democrats lack a unified position on Iraq.

Suppose that the Democrats retook Congress but that the situation in Iraq -- and public opinion -- improved. Then, Democrats would look foolish if they'd promoted a quick withdrawal. Now suppose that the Republicans kept control of Congress and that the situation in Iraq -- and public opinion -- worsened. Then, the pressure on Bush from Republicans to pull back would intensify. Either way, public opinion governs.

Aside from being fickle, public opinion also marches in many directions at once.

Americans favor balanced budgets. But in 66 years of surveys, taxpayers have never said their income taxes were too low, reports Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute. A Gallup poll in April found that 48 percent thought their taxes too high and only 2 percent too low. Americans also think government spending is hugely wasteful; 61 percent said so in a 2004 poll by the University of Michigan. But locating that waste is hard. A recent Fox News poll found that only 19 percent favor cuts in Social Security, 21 percent in health care, 19 percent in education and 25 percent for the military.

Or consider energy. Americans crave cheap gasoline. Unfortunately, that increases our oil demand -- which conflicts with our desire to reduce oil imports. Or immigration. A Pew Research Center survey in March said that 52 percent of Americans think immigrants are "a burden because they take jobs and housing." But only 27 percent would require illegal immigrants to go home, and only 40 percent would reduce legal immigration.

Facing such inconsistencies, how can government make sensible policy? Not easily.

Occasionally presidents and congresses get a free pass -- some crisis or event fosters national unity. Bush had such a moment after Sept. 11; Lyndon Johnson had one after John F. Kennedy's assassination; Franklin Roosevelt had one in his first 100 days. Otherwise, politicians can deal with public opinion in three ways: Ignore it, change it or pander to it. Politicians who choose the first often become ex-politicians. The second is hard; among recent presidents, Ronald Reagan did it best. The easiest course is to pander.

Bush and the Republican Congress happily cut taxes, enacted the Medicare drug benefit and praised deficit reduction. Anyone who thinks the Democrats set a higher standard should read "A New Direction for America," the manifesto issued by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. It proposes much new spending (bigger drug benefits, Pell grants and veterans benefits), new tax breaks, balanced budgets and no specific new taxes.

It also promises energy "independence" by 2020 -- a popular but (unfortunately) impossible goal. We import 12.5 million barrels of oil a day, 60 percent of our use. No conceivable combination of new fuels and conservation could offset that by 2020. Unsurprisingly, House Republicans also plug energy "independence."

Tell people what they want to hear, regardless of how inaccurate, shortsighted or stupid it might be. That's the bipartisan instinct. In this election, the Republicans deserve to lose, and the Democrats don't deserve to win. Yes, I am a longtime believer in divided government, because it may check each party's worst excesses. But don't expect fundamental changes if Democrats reclaim some power.

The enduring significance of public opinion (see Bryce, above) reflects both national optimism and suspicion of power. Believing that all problems can be "solved" -- even if goals are inconsistent -- we blame government for not accomplishing the impossible. We won't acknowledge choices, contradictions, unpalatable facts. So, many problems persist for years. Throwing the bums out is a venerable tradition, but what if the ultimate bums are us?


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