The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats say GOP politicians are immoral for opposing Syrian refugees in the U.S. That’s not entirely fair.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), right, accompanied by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Leaders lead.

It's the most basic tenet of politics. We elect people to office to lead us — especially in tough times.

And yet, we also elect politicians to represent us — to be our guy (or woman) in Washington or in the governor's mansion or the state House or the mayor's office. We pay their salaries and we want them to channel and fight for what we believe.

Which brings me to the ongoing fight over whether the United States should halt — or modify — its Syrian refugee program in the face of the terrorist attacks in Paris last week.

Recent polling on the issue makes one thing very clear: A majority of Americans oppose allowing Syrian refugees to enter the country. Fifty-three percent of respondents in a Bloomberg News poll said the U.S. refugee program should be halted, while just 28 percent said the program should remain as is. An additional 11 percent favored the idea of continuing the program but screening out Syrian Muslims from entering the country. An NBC/Survey Monkey poll released Wednesday night showed that 56 percent of people disapprove of allowing more Syrian immigrants into the country. And Republican voters are particularly opposed to allowing Syrian refugees in; 7 in 10 in the Bloomberg poll and 8 in 10 in the NBC/Survey Monkey poll do not want to allow the Syrian refugee program to continue as is.

So what should our politicians — Democrats and Republicans — do and/or be expected to do?

Democrats — led by President Obama — have cast the issue as purely a leadership question, insisting that no matter what the populace may think of allowing Syrian refugees into the country, it is at the core of who we are as a nation. "We are not well served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic," Obama said earlier this week. "We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks."

And the Democratic National Committee released a video Thursday morning slamming Republicans on the issue.

That is, of course, an easy position for Obama and other Democratic politicians to take. Obama will run for any other office, meaning he is free to do what he believes is right as opposed to making the right political decision — those are often, but not always, the same thing — without fear of repercussions. For the rest of the Democrats, their base largely agrees with their position on the Syrian refugees — and the broader questions of the Islamic State and Islam — which makes saying "It's all about leadership"  a lot easier.

Republicans, on the other hand, are not in that same position. Their base quite clearly believes that a halt — temporary or permanent — on the influx of Syrian refugees is a reasonable reaction to Paris. They do not believe that such a stance makes them xenophobes or — as many liberals on Twitter and elsewhere have alleged — part of the country's dark history of overreaction when faced with refugee crises. They believe it's the responsible thing to do. If one of the Paris attackers was able to get from Greece to Paris with a group of refugees and the United States acknowledges that its screening program is far from perfect, why take the risk of allowing in someone who wants to do harm to this country?

That view is reflected — or amplified — by most prominent Republican politicians. "It is the height of lunacy for a government official to welcome in tens of thousands of refugees when we know that among them will be ISIS terrorists," Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), a GOP presidential candidate who is working on legislation to stop the influx of refugees, said Wednesday.

Democrats condemn the likes of Cruz for misleading people for his own political purposes. And there is no question that there is some political motivation in the stridency in the positions of Cruz and his Republican presidential challengers. But a few things to consider:

1. What if Cruz and his ilk actually believe what they are saying? That the right next step is to pause and figure out how to refine our refugee acceptance system? Isn't that a form of leadership, too — even if you might disagree with Cruz's view?

2. Weighing the political impact of positions you take is, well, the root of politics. To return to my point above, Republicans are elected to represent a constituency just like Democrats are. If that constituency is overwhelmingly in favor of putting a halt to Syrian refugees entering the country, it is both good representation and savvy politics to at least hear that point of view. Democrats may not understand that because their elected officials and their base feel as though this is, at heart, a moral issue. But remember that it's easy to claim morality when there are no political consequences for doing so.

The debate over the refugee crisis has quickly escalated into something more than a political fight: It's being cast, particularly by Democrats, as a choice between doing what is morally right and what is morally reprehensible.

Stakes like those make it difficult to have any sort of reasonable political discussion. If one view is "good" and the other is "evil," we are already beyond talking. But, even so, it's important to remember that leadership and good representation don't solely mean politicians agreeing with your view on every issue. That goes for Democrats and Republicans both.