While the budget choices are only getting harder, Republicans seem to be wedding themselves increasingly to the popular will. In the House, GOP leaders are turning legislation into a reality show they call "YouCut." Every week, they will hold an Internet contest to select an item that should be removed from the budget. Whatever people pick, House Republicans will bring up for a vote. Today the target was funding for NPR. (It failed. Democrats are still the majority for a moment.)
When politicians can't be in front of a parade of public opinion, they sometimes try to convince a reluctant public that something is a good idea. Obama tried to do this with health care, and it didn't work out. When he couldn't sell it before the legislation passed, he tried to sell it after the fact. (That's what Nancy Pelosi meant when she said people would only know what was in the bill once it had passed. Republicans used that comment to kick Pelosi around for a few months.) The public didn't buy this approach, either.
Republicans' most powerful political argument against the president was that he was ignoring public opinion, which, in the Republican formulation, was a reckless and arrogant thing to do. But having used this so effectively to pin down the president—and having ceded ever more of their legislating direction to the popular will—the Republican Party now finds itself caught between the conflicting demands of an ambivalent public.
One way around this dilemma is to simply assert the public is behind you whether it is or isn't. It's a neat trick, ignoring public opinion while using it to sell your positions. Rep. Mike Pence is trying to pull it off when he argues for extending the Bush tax cuts for everyone permanently. "We've got the American people on our side," he says. The polls don't agree. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, 57 percent of the public either wants the Bush tax cuts extended for only those families making less than $250,000 or not extended at all. A recent NBC poll found the same result. So did the exit polls on Election Day.
The more common practice for a politician in Pence's position—when he has to do something more astringent than hand out lollipops—is to get out the theme music and say he's doing it on principle. (That's what Bush did with Social Security reform). Alternatively, he can pretend he alone has some special ability to divine the will of the American people.
So how will Republicans get out of the box into which they've packaged themselves? They may try to do what Obama was incapable of: convince the public to do something it doesn't want to do. They could get the president's help in this; he says he shares their goal of reducing the national debt. But the question is whether either side will be willing to show its hand. The first party to announce support for an unpopular reduction may get stuck with the blame. One way around this problem is trust: If each side trusts the other, then it matters less which side goes first. But in Washington right now, the trust deficit almost matches the fiscal one.