At an off-the-record briefing for a conservative think tank this week, a top Republican pollster explained to a frustrated audience why Republican candidates won’t talk about foreign policy. A quarter of Americans, the pollster explained, have lost their jobs in the past year, or have a family member who has lost a job. In the worst-hit cities the proportion is much higher, peaking at 39% in Las Vegas. When you’re five paychecks away from bankruptcy — that’s the median position of American workers — and terrified about losing employment, you don’t want to hear about foreign policy. It’s fine to kill Bin Laden or Gaddafi, but then Americans would like to see our troops come home. They are tired of the Iraq war. It’s not that it hurts Republicans to talk about foreign policy, but their pollsters are telling them that people just don’t care.
I respect the pollster in question, but I think he’s wrong. The electorate doesn’t always know what it wants to hear, until it hears it, and the job of political leadership is to lead. My old mentor in Republican politics, the late supply-side pundit Jude Wanniski, liked to say that the electorate was like a diamond in the rough: there is always an optimal way to cut the diamond, and a political leader has to know just where to place the chisel.