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Politicians are not nearly as fickle as the people they work for, which makes it perilous to take a position and stick to it: There is a better-than-even chance that voters will switch sides.
What seems like a good political position today might become a shaky one in the future.
You remember the photograph of the body of a Syrian Kurdish infant on a Turkish beach last September? It was a turning point in the global conversation about the people trying to get away from war and terror in their home countries.
Terror attacks in Paris and Beirut were turning points, too, pushing compassion from center stage and replacing it with a public demand for security and protection.
“Help them” became “protect us.”
In real life, when someone is upset or worked up over something, you try to calm them down. Politicians reach for the gasoline.
The terrorists attacked, as fortune would have it, at a time when American political races are underway and people whose fates rise and fall with public sentiment look for ways to get some favorable attention.
The strategies of the professionals have landed all over the place.
Gov. Greg Abbott wants to keep Syrian refugees out of Texas. That doesn’t mark him as unique, as 30 or so other governors are building the same rhetorical walls. Other state leaders chimed in, though some said they just want to make sure vetting standards are high enough to spot the bad guys trying to get into the country.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller compared the refugees to rattlesnakes on his Facebook page: “Can you tell me which of these rattlers won't bite you? Sure some of them won't, but tell me which ones so we can bring them into the house.”
Donald Trump, the frontrunner in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, called for surveillance and for a watchlist of Muslims.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has moved into second place in some presidential polls, says he is “not a fan of government registries,” but also doesn’t think Syrian refugees should be allowed into the U.S. He offers an exception, saying, “There is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror.”
Congress jumped in, too, with Republicans and also some Democrats voting to block resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees unless federal officials first raise already stringent checks to make sure those people pose no security risk. President Obama has said he will veto that.
Hillary Clinton landed on the other side of those members of Congress, saying the U.S. shouldn’t be turning away orphans, discriminating against Muslims or putting religious tests in place.
Each in their own way is trying to fortify their base of political support. No matter what you think about this, where you fall in this debate over security from terrorists and compassion for refugees, there is a politician out there for you. But you might change your mind. Maybe that happened in the last week. Politicians have to leave themselves some room to move with you.
George Wallace had some moments like this; one in particular he could never escape. It came in his inaugural address, after he was sworn in as governor of Alabama in 1963. It was defiantly directed at Washington, meant to mark a hard line between his political friends and his foes.
“Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us, and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South,” Wallace said. “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw a line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
And it worked, after a fashion, drawing attention to a provocative, noisy governor who wanted to work his way into national politics. He fell short in several runs for president, but won three more elections for governor. In later years, he sought forgiveness from some of the same civil rights activists he had vilified.
Amnesty for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. isn’t popular with GOP voters, but it was Ronald Reagan’s position. The country is more conservative on that issue today. Same-sex marriage, now legal across the country, was a non-starter for officeholders and candidates from both parties just a few years ago. The public has become more liberal on that one.
Politicians who take hardline positions on volatile issues can find themselves out of sync with voters. Nobody cries foul when voters change their minds, but only the very best politicians can get away with it.