WASHINGTON — There are some basic rules in politics. When the public is with you, claim a mandate by the will of the people. When the public is against you, claim a strong personal compass that isn't swayed by polls. And when you think your control and approval are slipping, talk about the conspiracy working against you.
With those simple rules in mind, we turn our attention to the Republican leadership and House majority leader Tom DeLay.
After facing several rebukes from the House ethics committee for a variety of offenses - everything from having an interest group pay for his travel to having federal aviation authorities help track down Democratic lawmakers in Texas - Mr. DeLay recently told a Christian conservative group that he had met the enemy and it was "a huge nationwide concerted effort to destroy everything we believe in." This "syndicate," DeLay said, was attacking the conservative movement by launching vicious personal attacks against its leaders.
Ah, we know we're through the looking glass when DeLay turns to the words of Hillary Clinton for inspiration. It was Mrs. Clinton, remember, who was greeted with chortles when she decried the "vast right-wing conspiracy" out to destroy her and then-President Bill Clinton.
Who knows? Maybe DeLay is right. Maybe there is a secret cabal somewhere, right now plotting against him and the conservative movement. But, if it exists, at the moment it's about as successful as the 2004 Kerry campaign. For all the efforts of the "syndicate," DeLay's targeted party controls all three branches of the federal government. And maybe, just perhaps, DeLay has faced a series of ethics complaints because he has been dancing right on the edge of House rules.
President Bush hasn't been so extreme when he talks of the image problems he faces. There's no "syndicate" in his way, only "the filter" that he says the media put on the news. But the more the president reaches around the so-called filter and speaks at neatly packaged events to sell his Social Security reform plan, the more people seem to be tuning him out. Polls show support for his plan for private accounts is waning. And as he finally starts to acknowledge that the proposal won't solve Social Security's long-term solvency problems, it's hard to imagine how support will grow.
What's happening in Washington is that perception and spin are starting to run into real life and the dissonance between them is growing more obvious. There simply may not be a lot of support for the GOP's agenda right now or its methods.
The president and his party emerged from last fall's elections with an extremely narrow win on paper that they tried to claim as a mandate. They reached for big, broad goals. That's their choice, of course, but it's a risky strategy, particularly in the US in 2005, which is much like the US of 2000: divided and not much interested in radical changes - especially partisan ones.
The nation's reaction to the media's No. 1 topic of the past several weeks, the fate of Terri Schiavo, may signal an awakening to reality. Ms. Schiavo's situation and her family's battle over her life and death are terribly sad. But is anyone actually surprised that people are upset that Congress got involved in the case? One poll showed 82 percent of Americans - even 68 percent of evangelical Christians - thought Congress's action was wrong. Is it a shock that Americans, who hold their independence and ability to make personal decisions sacred, would object to Congress intervening in the case of one person?
That's not to say that politicians didn't vote their conscience in Congress or that Mr. Bush didn't deeply believe in signing the bill Congress passed. What it does say is this: The ruling party is so sure of itself, it stepped into the middle of a family dispute, even though doing so put the party at odds with what it has historically stood for - lack of government interference.
Yes, people will argue that Democrats were involved in passing the legislation as well, and they were. But it was GOP leadership in the House and Senate that brought the issue to Washington. They decided they didn't like the rulings that came out of the Florida courts, so they'd supersede those courts in this one case - as if it was somehow different from thousands of other dilemmas they simply ignore.
There are few electoral mandates ever big enough to support that kind of action. And if the Republicans don't soon do a quick mental accounting and acknowledge they're facing a divided and skeptical country (as the US often is), they may find that 2006 and 2008 are unhappy election years. Americans love confidence in their leaders, but they don't like hubris.
• Dante Chinni is a senior associate with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a twice-monthly political opinion column for the Monitor.