MCCONNELL’S APPROACH TO PUBLIC OPINION…. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky isn’t especially knowledgeable about public policy, and has never shown any real interest in the substance of lawmaking, but he understands strategy and political tactics with surprising acuity.

In fact, for all of his shameless dishonesty, McConnell is often quite candid about his tactical efforts. He told the NYT this week about his decision early on to undermine health care reform by ensuring total GOP opposition: “It was absolutely critical that everybody be together because if the proponents of the bill were able to say it was bipartisan, it tended to convey to the public that this is O.K., they must have figured it out.” Since all Democratic legislation necessarily must be killed, all Republicans necessarily had to stand together against it, regardless of merit.

He offered similar candor in an interview with National Journal, explaining the importance he and the House GOP leadership put on “unify[ing] our members in opposition” to just about everything Democrats wanted to do.

“Public opinion can change, but it is affected by what elected officials do. Our reaction to what [Democrats] were doing had a lot to do with how the public felt about it. Republican unity in the House and Senate has been the major contributing factor to shifting American public opinion.”

This is critically important, and often forgotten. The basic civics model tells us that if a policy agenda receives an electoral mandate, and enjoys support in public opinion polls, the challenge for opponents of that agenda is deciding whether or not to buck prevailing attitudes and ignore election results.

But the basic civics model is wrong, or at a minimum, overly simplistic. The public’s reactions are shaped by officials’ reactions. The challenge for a minority party isn’t whether to defy the country’s wishes, but rather, how to convince the country that their opposition alone necessarily makes the majority’s agenda dubious.

Matt Yglesias explained this nicely:

That’s exactly right. Since January of 2009, instead of sticking their fingers in the wind and only opposing unpopular initiatives, Republicans have reduced the popularity of initiatives by opposing them. The blanket opposition makes Obama’s initiatives look “partisan” and then it leads, necessarily, to Democratic infighting that further reduces support. If you don’t care at all about the welfare of human beings, this is a very smart strategy.

Right. And as McConnell and his cohorts have made abundantly clear, Americans’ welfare and the nation’s future pale in comparison to the Republican quest for power.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.