Leadership challenge: Take voters' mixed messages and deal.

Steven Pearlstein
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 10:11 PM

No, the message from voters this week was not clear. The public remains very much of two minds on the vital questions about the proper balance between markets and government. On some issues, opinion is evenly divided, but on others, voters hold opinions that, in policy terms, are contradictory. On still others, many voters are simply misinformed.

Thus has it always been. That's why the system is set up to channel public opinion through elected representatives who are supposed to listen but also think, inquire and lead. As a former town moderator (elected!) of West Newbury, Mass., I have firsthand experience with direct democracy at open town meetings. It works fine for deciding whether to buy a new firetruck, but you wouldn't want to rely on it to rewrite the tax laws. If you doubt that, just look at what government-by-referendum has wrought in California.

That doesn't make the results of this week's elections any less legitimate or compelling. Nor does it take away from the obvious fact that voters are dissatisfied with what they have experienced during the past two years. No doubt about it: Democrats clearly overreached and underdelivered. The post-election response from President Obama was correct if begrudging. The "we wouldn't do anything differently" message from Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid was simply appalling.

Any fact-based analysis of the returns should start with the significant change from 2008 in the composition of the voter pool, which is common for midterm elections. According to The Washington Post's polling maven, Jon Cohen, of the seven-percentage-point swing to Republicans this time, roughly four points can be explained by the failure of young people to vote in larger numbers and three points to the drop-off in black voters. (Cohen notes that there may be overlap between the two categories). Looked at another way, if 2010 voters had decided the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama would have tied John McCain rather than won that contest by seven percentage points.

Not voting, of course, is also a form of political expression. But the dramatic change in the ranks of those who showed up at the polls suggests some caution in making sweeping statements about dramatic reversals in public attitudes.

As for those mandates claimed by the victors, it appears that discerning them requires special 3-D glasses available only to Republicans and their sympathizers.

The exit polls available to the rest of us, for example, showed 38 percent of voters supporting the president's proposal to extend the Bush tax rates for household income below $250,000 and 37 percent in favor of continuing them for everyone else. Most of the rest (15 percent) favor letting the Bush tax cuts expire for rich and poor alike.

And on health-care reform, 47 percent want to repeal the new law, but an equal percentage would leave the law as is (16 percent) or "expand" it (31 percent).

There are even those who claim there is a mandate to cut back on regulation of oil companies and Wall Street firms, reflecting rampant concern among blue-collar workers and suburban housewives that "government command and control" is on the verge of "suffocating" the creativity of our market economy. Maybe they're the same blue-collar workers and suburban housewives who were so worried about weapons of mass destruction that they demanded a war against Iraq.

Thanks in part to the efforts of the tea party, voters' top priority was deficit reduction. Fair enough. But it's a little hard to square that priority with the next two on the voters' to-do list: creating jobs and cutting taxes. Under most realistic scenarios, taking care of those would almost surely increase the deficit. Only in conservative fantasies do tax cuts from today's levels magically increase government revenue. And if short-run job creation is your concern, the economic textbooks prescribe more government spending, not less.

The job of political leaders is to find a way to reconcile these conflicting priorities while explaining to voters the necessary and unpleasant trade-offs. So far, however, the Republicans' strategy remains as it was in opposition, pandering to the voters by telling them they can have it all.

In a democracy, voters are all-powerful, but it doesn't mean they are all-knowing. A poll conducted in September by the Associated Press, for example, found that a majority of Americans think the new health-care law requires doctors and hospitals to treat illegal immigrants for free if they cannot afford to pay, that it requires insurance companies to charge smokers an extra $1,000 and that it requires states to set up insurance programs to sell low-cost policies to the poor. Just under 40 percent think the law creates "death panels" - committees that decide who will get care under Medicare and Medicaid and who will not. Not surprisingly, all of these popularly held beliefs have been part of the propaganda war against "Obamacare." There is no truth to any of them.

Indeed, half of all Americans acknowledge they are confused by the health-care law, according to monthly polls conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Given the complexity of the law, that is understandable, but it undercuts the notion that there is a credible mandate for repeal.

There is, however, one message from the voters that is unmistakable, and that is for politicians to stop the partisan bickering and posturing. Yet this is one that everyone seems willing to ignore.

Before the election, speaker-in-waiting John Boehner went out of his way to assure Sean Hannity and the audience at Fox News that "this is not a time for compromise." And at his post-election news conference, Boehner said that his party will "work with the administration when they agree with the people [translation: agree with us] and confront them when they don't."

As for the president, when asked about areas where he might be willing to compromise, he spoke of identifying "common ground" where the two parties might have similar views, as on energy policy, earmarks and education reform.

Common ground is great, but it's not compromise, which requires both sides to accept stuff it doesn't like to get other stuff that it does. That kind of deal-making is a lost art in Washington. Unless both sides take steps to revive it, we're in for two more years of partisan warfare, political gridlock and economic decline.

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