11/03/2010 04:09 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Voters Send a Muddled Message to Washington

As the admittedly selective nature of the following thoughts will show, I can hardly claim to understand the complete picture of the political and policy options confronting our country. But that's why I wrote this: because I don't think I'm alone.

After all elections, a strong desire exists to distill what has transpired into a clear and concise thesis. In 2010, that thesis has taken the following form: voters voted out Democrats because the economy was weak. The implication is that the average individual had a strong grasp of what they wanted, and voted accordingly. But I have a hard time seeing it that way. While it is clear that the economy was the most important issue for voters and that the incumbent Democratic Party suffered accordingly, it shouldn't be assumed that voters sent an unambiguous message to Washington. There's another reason, in my opinion, why two years after 52 percent of the country voted for President Obama's agenda, his party lost the midterms massively, one besides the slow pace of change and White House mistakes. It's because the American people are, on a variety of issues, confused as to what exactly they want.

Health Care Confusion - Consider the issue of health care. As important as jobs were in this election, Speaker-Elect John Boehner made a point of addressing health care the day after the election: "The American people are concerned about the government takeover of healthcare," he said. "I think it is important for us to lay the groundwork before we begin to repeal this monstrosity and replace it with common-sense reforms that will bring down the cost of healthcare insurance in America."

A "monstrosity." And yet, in June of 2009, polling indicated that 72 percent of Americans supported a public option in the bill - the public option that later proved too contentious (at least, in Congress) to pass. At the same time, 57 percent of poll respondents indicated that they were willing to pay more in taxes in order to guarantee all Americans access to health care.

That's not to say that public feelings concerning the legislation have been obvious. More people supported the legislation after it was passed than before passage. And of course, the individual components of the legislation have always been much more popular than the bill as a whole - which raises the question of what "the bill" means to the average voter, and what, specifically, Speaker Boehner will work to repeal.

On a related note, here in Illinois, voters selected Mark Kirk to be occupy the Senate seat Barack Obama held just a few short years ago. In 2008, then-Senator Obama won 62 percent of the Illinois vote for president. Health care reform represents one of his signature legislative achievements thus far. The legislation he signed was opposed by Mark Kirk. Does this mean that Illinois voters have turned against a key pillar of the Obama agenda? It seems far more likely that local concerns came into play, and that Alexi Ginnoulias wasn't able to overcome his image as being ethically dubious.

Cutting the Budget -- Or consider the incoming Republican leadership's professed commitment to address our national debt by cutting the federal budget. Both parties have made such claims a key part of their agendas, and yet neither has ever been punished at the polls for a glaring omission: with a few exceptions, defense spending is sacrosanct.

Such is obviously the case with the current group of Republican leaders. During an interview with
Chris Matthews last night, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who currently holds the position of Deputy Whip in the House, outlined the priorities of her party. At the top of the list was a pledge to implement "across the board spending cuts." When pressed, Ms. Blackburn failed to list any specific programs that would be cut. She did, however, add that "you do not cut defense and you do not cut homeland security." The 2010 budget appropriations for the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security total $706.4 billion dollars - by far the biggest part of our discretionary budget. (Again, in this regard, Ms. Blackburn is mirroring President Obama, whose own proposed discretionary spending freeze also exempted spending on defense.)

Government bailouts are another favorite target of the incoming Republican leadership. However, John Boehner himself supported the TARP bailout in September of 2008. "These are the votes that separate the men from the boys and the girls from the women," he said on the House floor at the time, trying to rally Republican support for the bill. "These are the kind of votes that we have to look into our soul. And understand and ask ourselves the question: What is in the best interest of the country. I believe what's in the best interest of our country as I stand here today is to vote for this bill."

Considering that officials such as these have been elevated to a new position of prominence, it's worth asking: where, exactly, does the public stand on cutting federal spending?

Afghanistan -- One of the reasons why spending on defense is largely untouchable is the pervasive implication that to cut it means cutting support from troops in the field. We all remember the debates surrounding the Iraq War after Democrats took Congress in 2006. Those who supported the continuation of the conflict worked hard to link its open-ended funding to support for "the troops." We see the same rhetorical support in popular culture constantly, and in our political and public discourse, soldiers are venerated, their heroism held up as distinct from larger considerations concerning the wisdom of their mission.

And yet, the war in Afghanistan was barely a blip in this year's election. Poll after poll found that fewer than 10 percent of voters saw it as the most important issue facing the country, or the most important issue to them. Mr. Boehner's victory speech last night was filled with grandiose proclamations, but Afghanistan never came up. This, despite the fact that troop levels in the country are at historic highs, as are casualties: 415 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan so far this year, more than during any other year since the war began.

What's the Message? - I recognize that this may sound like a partisan analysis - merely another attempt to accuse Republicans of hypocrisy. But I don't intend it to be such. I'm focusing on Republicans because they are the ascendant party, but the point I'm trying to express isn't confined to either them or the Democrats. It's broader than both, because it implicates all of us. The issues facing our nation are vast and complex, but too often, we don't achieve the kind of intellectual coherence needed to address them in a systematic, or successful, way. The idea that the collective mind of voters is discernible based on yesterday's election results - and that a course of action can be charted accordingly, as top consultants have already expressed - is, in my opinion, false. In my mind, the few examples cited above show how disjointed American thought is on a host of crucial issues. Such a reality makes serious politics, and policy, all the more difficult to conduct.

Genuine political leadership is needed: leaders who speak clearly and consistently on issues with the intent to educate, not simply motivate or anger. And our national press must take on the same responsibility. Yesterday, an article in, of all places, Politico - a new media organ designed to further and exploit the non-stop news cycle we now live with - made a point of acknowledging that too much of the media's coverage leading up to 2010 had been spent focused on things that scored ratings, but were irrelevant to the choices confronting voters.

Americans need not agree on the issues of the day, but we do need to stop being so confused. If we know who we are and what we stand for - in a real way, not a rhetorical way - our government will reflect our convictions. Otherwise, it will continue to swing manically, to the detriment of us all.