Blowing Up the Courthouse

It's fairly well known that voters are ideologically conservative and operationally liberal, which is to say that they prefer conservative ideas but opt for progressive policies. I guess us political watchers should be thankful for the contradiction because it keeps both parties alive and struggling, but it's also a rough hill for Democrats to climb, constantly having to avoid triggering voters' conservative ideology so we can talk about their liberal programs. This month's American Prospect, though, has the best description I've ever read of the trouble this poses for Republicans. Geoffrey Nunberg, in an article about the Democrat's unhelpful habit of ceding ideological terrain to the enemy, nails down the dynamic with this perfect paragraph:

Public support for Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America" evaporated when the House speaker forced the budget showdown with Bill Clinton that ultimately brought the whole government to a halt. It was as if someone who had built a career telling lawyer jokes suddenly announced plans to dynamite the county courthouse.

I love it. And it really is true. To some degree, voters project their own checkered ideologies onto their representative. Problem is, voters don't quite have an ideology, they have some theories on how government should run and some theories on what it should do, neither of which match up. But when politicians make their rhetoric match up with the voters thoughts in one area, area two, to some degree, is assumed. That's why poll after poll shows that Republican voters believe Bush supports a host of positions that're anathema to this white house. Labor standards, international treaties, universal health care -- voters mistake the conservative for a compassionate, even as he's taken up residence on the opposite side of that formulation.

How to force a reckoning is beyond me, but Social Security seems to be doing the trick. For the first time in his presidency, George W. Bush decided to be operationally conservative. And, indeed, the voters reacted as if he'd announced plans to dynamite the proverbial county courthouse. Before that, what really had Bush done, domestically? Tax cuts, which everyone likes. A massive expansion of Medicare. A massive increase in education spending. A few bills that sounded environmentally friendly (even if they weren't). The guy had, on the surface, run a domestic progressive's gameplan. Then came the second quarter and the administration rushed out in conservative colors only to be promptly blitzed. If nothing else, it's heartening to know voters stick to their second ideal as doggedly as to their first.