The Gulf oil spill has laid bare a series of shortcomings in the government’s ability both to prevent and to respond to such a crisis, and the result is spiraling public frustration. But it might not hurt for members of the public to save a little of that frustration for themselves. Because anyone trying to figure out what Americans want from government as a result of the mess in the Gulf can only be left scratching his head.

“In times of crisis,” the New York Times columnist David Brooks observed a few weeks ago, “you get a public reaction that is incoherence on stilts.” Most people know that the direct fault was not the government’s, and that there’s nothing the president can do to plug the hole. Yet, as Brooks puts it, “they want to hold him responsible for things they know he doesn’t control.”

They want the government to take decisive action, but not at too great an expense or with too much interference in private oil companies. They want to beef up regulation of the oil industry, but don’t want to stifle efforts to secure our energy independence.

And the Gulf spill is hardly the only issue on which we as Americans contradict ourselves. In a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, almost two-thirds of those surveyed put a high priority on halting the flow of illegal immigrants into the country; yet even more — almost three-quarters — also say that they are somewhat or very concerned that tougher immigration laws would lead to harassment of Hispanics.

Americans are leery of expanding the role of government in healthcare — but were outraged by the thought that the health-care reform might affect their federal Medicare benefits. They are bitter about the growing budget deficit, but resent efforts to cut entitlement spending or to raise taxes. They want government to run frugally, but quickly grow indignant when it turns out there aren’t enough inspectors to ensure the safety of the food supply or basic infrastructure or oil-drilling rigs.

The key problem is that Americans want limited government, but keep demanding expanded government services.

So if you’re a politician, what do you make of this? It is the job of our elected officials — our political leaders — to represent the American people. This is hard to do when the American people give conflicting signals about what they want.

In many cases, each of these desires — less spending and more services, for instance — are quite worthy. And there are certainly a host of matters on which difficult issues are at stake and contradictory principles at work. In a recent speech, for instance, former Supreme Court Justice David Souter noted that a choice often has to be made “because the Constitution embodies the desire of the American people, like most people, to have things both ways. We want order and security, and we want liberty.”

The truth is, politicians represent the people rather precisely — and certainly better than most people think. To some extent, you can fault members of Congress and other politicians for not pointing out the contradictions. No successful politician, faced with an impossible request, would say, “You’re crazy.” He or she will instead respond calmly, “I’ll do my best and try to be helpful.”

Politicians may, in fact, be fairly criticized for avoiding hard choices, refusing to ask constituents for short-term sacrifice in exchange for long-term gains, and for putting off the day of reckoning. But they understand accurately that their constituents often want contradictory things, and may well punish at the polls members who speak frankly and make tough choices.

It is unfair, then, to place all the onus for government’s failings on our politicians. We — all of us — deserve some of the blame. Americans must understand our own responsibility for creating the problem if we want politicians to fix it.

Above all, it’s crucial to understand that it is the job of the political process — and of Congress, in particular — to recognize the confusion inherent in popular desires and to resolve it. Much of what goes on in policy-making on Capitol Hill is the effort to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable views and to develop a consensus when people are asking government to do worthy but contradictory things.

This is the tough, time-consuming work of representative democracy, and some understanding, even patience, on the part of the ordinary voter seems entirely appropriate — since we so often contribute to the dilemma in the first place.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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