WHERE we stand preoccupies us more than we think. Unconsciously, our attitudes as citizens can be taken over by the public mood, by an ideology, by acceptance of or rebellion against a family's prejudices, by a teacher's persuasion. We do not think in a vacuum. Often we may have the conviction of strongly holding an opinion when it may be truer to say the opinion has hold of us. The most precious right in a democracy may be the right to think for oneself. Paradoxically, ideas and values flow more freely in a democracy; they have easier access and representation. So they may aggressively move about. At the least they form a kind of background clutter, a junkmail of notions appealing for our attention. At times they can flare into paranoia, as in the communist hunts of the '50s. A specific policy approach such as ``Reaganomics,'' which attacked federal taxes and spending, may borrow force from a generalized public dissatisfaction with government performance and gain influence for a period.
A politician's characteristic claim is that he represents public opinion. The politician can be seen moving to the head of the parade, as if leading it. Usually this effort to get in front of public sentiment is humorous; in some societies when a demogogue is a politician, it can be tragic.
Politics is more about feelings and emotions than about policies and ideas. Campaign ``debates'' can be ludicrous when candidates try to find an argument to cap what they take to be the public mood, or to devise an argument that will bridge a cluster of conflicting public values.
The politician thinks the public wants certitude. He or she finds it hard to say ``I don't know.'' Right now the most certitudinous public figure in America is George Bush. He has drawn a line in the desert sand and put a force of half a million men and women behind it. That is likely a good bargaining position for dealing with Saddam Hussein. It has prompted a flurry of European and other attempts to find a way to avoid the violent enforcement of the United Nations resolutions against Iraq. American public opinion is behind Bush; but whether the public has in in mind the threat of force, or the use of force in so far as it makes the threat credible, is hard to tell. Here the president must find the best course of action himself. When many thousands of lives are at stake on both sides, his certitudinous self must listen to his calculating self and seek an opening that avoids war.
One persistent strain in Washington thinking - to be found more often among policy advisers than among the military - is that ``surgical'' applications of force are good for the world body. Marines in Beirut, air attacks against Libya, strikes in Grenada and Panama reflect an American predisposition to act that Saddam should be aware of.
Action is an emotional choice. The decision may come down to whether to get on with it or to sit there. The last ``sit there'' president, in the popular view, was Jimmy Carter. He did not do himself justice with his ``age of limits'' rhetoric, or his hostage vigil. Carter was, after all, the only president to achieve a breakthrough for peace in the region, with the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt. A peace is better to win than a war. Carter risked his reputation, and Anwar Sadat gave his life, to secure a peaceful frontier in an area of millennial conflict.
Ideologies, tribal hatreds want to play capture-the-flag with individual and crowd consciousness. A healthy democracy eventually learns by experience whether it has been led aright.
The Middle East is on edge. Eastern Europe is feeling the poverty of decades of socialist rule. But this is a practical period in American and Western life. Drugs, crime, homelessness, economic recession head the list of public concerns. This is not an emotional moment for ideologies to feed upon.
Government would improve if it focused less on citizen thinking and more on how it conducts itself. In 1991 the White House should use American strength to avoid war. And Congress should pick a few priorities: Simplify the budget process; reduce the number of laws it writes; shrink its staff; and reform the way it gets elected.