In the political world, a (policy) "wonk" is a guy who has a keen grasp of numbers and loves discussing the implementation and consequences of public policy. In other words, they are losers because they aren't ruthlessly focused on the ultimate goal of politics: winning elections.
I absolutely hate it when sites like Politico and RCP describe certain politicians as "wonkish" or "wonks" because I hate what it implies. That politics is just about winning the next election, and that we'll deal with the real issues at a later point in time when the next election cycle isn't so far away.
For example, the first 100 days of a newly elected President is absolutely crucial. It's when the President has the most political capital and the best ability to get things done. It also happens to be the longest time between a President and his reelection campaign.
I'm not naive about politics. I know that American politics has always been focused laser focused on winning elections since the modern era (post WWII). And that every politician also relies on small ball, stupid distractions that don't represent real issues, to fire up their base and court independent voters.
I've been intensely interested in politics for approximately 2 Presidential election cycles: 2008 and now. And I haven't seen anything substantially different. We're still arguing about stupid stuff. Or we're using stupid stuff and small ball as a proxy fight for issues that are actually important. For example, the fight around Medicare is disgraceful. Both sides are distorting and oversimplifying so they can scare the electorate into voting for their candidate.
Medicare and Medicaid are the two giant elephants in the room. They're growing like gangbusters. Every politician knows that, in their current form, both programs are not sustainable. Every politician knows that both programs need thorough reforms to prevent them from blowing up the Federal fisc. And politicians who are focused on doing exactly that are labeled "policy wonks". Because the political will for bipartisan reform of a popular program can only happen once the program has already reached crisis mode. And we're still at least a decade out from reaching that point.
It's easy to get depressed over the state of American politics. Haphazard cries for civility and intelligent discourse are immediately drowned out by vulgarity and rhetoric. And the reason why is simple. American voters are dumb as rocks. Politicians give us slop because, collectively, we want slop.
So the wonks are doomed to obscurity and marginalization. Because nobody wants to deal with the real issues until no alternative is left to them.