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A Mob-Rule Moment

By David S. Broder
Thursday, July 5, 2007

Former senator Fred Thompson has begun his unannounced quest for the Republican presidential nomination by telling audiences in New Hampshire that Washington is badly out of touch with the country.

As a senior campaign adviser put it to The Post's Michael Shear, Thompson believes that "the politicians have lost their connection with what people really want and what they really expect."

Few if any of the other 17 men and one woman vying for the presidency would be bold enough to challenge Thompson's claim. The belief that official Washington is deaf to the people's wishes is a staple of political rhetoric for both Republicans and Democrats -- even those, including Thompson, who have operated inside the Beltway for decades.

Let a reporter who is not running for anything suggest that exactly the opposite may be true: A particularly virulent strain of populism has made official Washington altogether too responsive to public opinion.

From Aristotle to Edmund Burke, philosophers have written of the healthy tension that normally exists between the understanding and strategies of leaders and the sentiments and opinions of their people.

In today's Washington, a badly weakened president and a dangerously compliant congressional leadership are no match for the power of public opinion -- magnified and sometimes exaggerated by modern communications and interest group pressure.

The latest cave-ins involve immigration and trade policy, and both seriously threaten the national interest.

The collapse of the immigration reform bill in the Senate last month means that the broken border system, which allows a continuing flood of illegal immigrants to enter the United States with no hope of attaining the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship, will continue for at least two more years. No one is talking of reviving the effort until after the 2008 election installs a new president and Congress.

With all its shortcomings, the defeated legislation offered some prospect of improving at least some aspects of that broken system. But it was buried by an avalanche of phone calls to the Capitol from good citizens decrying what they had been told on many talk radio stations and by some conservative politicians: that it was an amnesty bill.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a man I have criticized on other occasions, stood his ground and produced 33 Democratic votes to move to close debate -- much to his credit. But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had promised to support the bill, which was President Bush's last hope for a major domestic victory, saw only a dozen Republicans rally to that cause -- and then bailed out himself, voting no.

Predictably, McConnell blamed the defeat on public sentiment. The bill "wasn't the people's will," he told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "And they were heard."

The House was no more courageous. A day after the Senate folded on immigration, the Democratic leadership of the House quietly scuttled the president's authority to negotiate trade agreements for the United States.

The "fast-track" process, in which Congress casts only an up-or-down vote on trade deals negotiated with other countries, has been the key to a vast expansion in world trade. But the resulting trade agreements have run into populist protests from labor and liberal groups that blame them for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

The Bush administration has responded to Democratic pressure by including enforceable new labor and environmental standards in several pending bilateral trade agreements. But the action by the House means that any further deals are unlikely as long as Bush is president.

I think labor and the environmentalists have made a good case for including their protections in these trade deals. But ending the president's negotiating authority will only do our country damage. "America needs to remain open for business to the 95 percent of the world's consumers living outside the United States," said U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab. And she is right.

The point is pretty basic. Politicians are wise to heed what people want. But they also have an obligation to weigh for themselves what the country needs. In today's Washington, the "wants" of people count far more heavily than the nation's needs.

You can win elections by promising people what they want. But you win your place in history by doing what the country needs done.

davidbroder@washpost.com

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