Memo To: SSU Students
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Chickens, ducks and parrots
In last week’s first part of this lesson on choosing political leaders we learned that the electorate in any given political subdivision will look to different types of men and women to represent them, depending upon circumstance and the office. A successful U.S. Senator who wins landslide elections in his home state may be wholly unacceptable to the national electorate when he runs for President. The reverse is also true. George Bush the elder did win his race for the House in 1966 and made a name for himself in the GOP. But he was whipped easily when he ran for a Texas Senate seat. The national electorate thought better of him after he served as Vice President to Ronald Reagan and vowed to continue RR’s supply-side tax policies. When he went back on that pledge, the national electorate turned him out of office in favor of an opponent, the governor of Arkansas, who seemed to have a better fix on what the voters wanted.
Let’s make this as simple as we can. In The Way the World Works, I suggested what I came to call the "chicken-duck-parrot" model as the simplest form of my general political model:
As an example of this political model in its simplest terms, consider the following caricature. Assume that the purest expression of the electorate's self-interest is a chicken. It attempts to communicate this desire to the politicians through a multitude of voices in a great variety of ways. Only a very few of the individual voices will come close to expressing this desire precisely, most of the voices expressing negative tastes for everything that is not a chicken. If there are two keen politicians contesting, on election day one might have refined his platform to express a duck. The other thinks the voters want a parrot. And because a duck is more like a chicken, the electorate will choose the candidate who expresses duck. Personality is as important as substance, however. If the duck candidate has shown sufficient signs of being untrustworthy, so weak and vacillating that in post-election he might easily become a hawk, the electorate would choose the more trustworthy parrot.
If the two contesting candidates were not keen, but insensitive to the expressions of the multitudes, on election day one might express a vulture, the other a worm. The vulture might win if in addition he showed signs during the campaign of moving in the direction of a more peaceful bird, and perhaps thereby being educable in office. Otherwise, the voters would likely choose the less threatening worm and wait for the next election, hoping for the best. The fact that the vulture candidate had at least expressed a bird might not be sufficient to persuade the voters that their interests were being given first consideration; the vulture candidate might have confronted the electorate as being an obstacle to be surmounted, his expression of bird of prey being a purely personal taste rather than a reflection of the electorate's tastes. In any case, with such a poor showing by the political alternatives, voters would be inclined not even to make a trip to the polls.
The only difference in reality from this simple chicken-duck-parrot model is in the number of variables that compose the consensus of the electorate's desires. The electorate may desire in addition to a domestic policy of chicken a foreign policy of eagle, and the task of the contending politicians becomes geometrically more difficult. A candidate may be near perfect in discerning the domestic desires of the electorate, but if he is widely off the mark on foreign policy he could easily lose to an opponent who is less correct on domestic policy, but less incorrect on foreign policy. No single candidate could possibly satisfy all the electors, however. In the modern nation state, individual electors have self-interests that are diametrically opposed to the interests of other electors. There are individuals whose well-being is served by economic growth and there are those who benefit by economic contraction or stagnation. So too, there are individuals whose welfare requires peace and those who benefit from tension. Each such interest is, in its own way, a legitimate one that the politician must in some sense take into account, for as long as peace and prosperity are not always society's condition, it has need of those who can deal with the alternatives. Pediatricians benefit directly from life; undertakers from death.
When former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter ran for the Democratic nomination in 1976, he faced several nationally known Democratic contenders, including Morris Udall, Fred Harris, Birch Bayh, and Hubert Humphrey. Each of these four had read the public opinion polls and decided that the American people were mad at the big oil companies and the big auto companies, so they campaigned on various promises to punish big oil and big auto. Udall of Arizona was the favorite among the liberals to win, and on January 23, 1976, I wrote about the race in the lead editorial of The Wall Street Journal, entitled "The Politics of Despair."
On "Meet the Press" last month, he capsulated his campaign, declaring that the days of "cheap land, cheap timber, cheap resources, cheap everything" are over, and "the story of our lives is going to be how we are going to adapt to the end of that era." He proposes to "move us to an era in which our lives are different, but our lives are going to be better. We are going to recycle, we are going to be thrifty, we are going to conserve energy, and we are going to bring the people down below the poverty line up, and we are going to have a just society where everyone pays fair taxes and we have national health insurance and a lot of other things.
The politics of despair appeals to the liberal Democrats because, as Mr. Udall's rhetoric makes so clear, once you have written off growth you have to concentrate on the issue of wholesale income redistribution. This is a program to transfer power from the conservative wealthy elite to the liberal intellectual elite, which is to say, to the left wing of the Democratic Party. So our guess is that the liberals will recognize Mr. Udall as their man, since he is the only Democratic contender to explicitly embrace a Club-of-Rome, doomsday, no-growth philosophy.
Now we do not believe the American people are yet quite ready to throw in the towel and abandon the American dream, and it will be a very tough job marketing political despair to the electorate at large. So even though the liberal wing will exert considerable clout at the national convention, the party will reach out for alternatives. [To] the true liberals... Mr. Carter is unacceptable because he is soft on private enterprise and does not want to break up the oil companies."
I remember Bob Bartley, editor of the WSJ editpage and my boss back then, asking me why I thought Jimmy Carter was winning the primaries when he did not seem to stand for anything, with his competitors complaining that he fuzzed and fudged all the issues being debated. I recall telling Bartley that if one candidate says, "Elect me and I will kill every fifth American," and another says, "I will kill every tenth American," and another says "every 15th," and another "every 20th," and then Jimmy Carter steps forward and says "I haven't made up my mind. Maybe I won't kill any Americans." The voters will of course pick Carter, as they did, going on to beat President Ford in the general election.
Why was he, Carter, successful against Ford and unsuccessful in winning re-election in 1980 against Reagan? The history books being written say all kinds of silly things, but at the time I was observing that Ford had an opportunity to lift Richard Nixon's price controls on the oil and gas industry. He decided not to because his political advisors worried the price of No. 2 fuel oil would rise and the voters of New Hampshire would be mad. The Texas wildcatters, furious at this betrayal, begged Ronald Reagan to run against Ford, and Reagan came within a whisker of beating him. In the general election, Jimmy Carter signed a letter to the oil state governors promising he would lift oil prices by executive order as soon as he was elected. Not quite "read my lips," but "read my letter." Once elected, the new President was persuaded to extend the controls again. When Reagan ran against him in 1980, heavily financed by the Texas wildcatters, Carter lost the oil patch and the presidency. There were many other things going on, but this could easily have been the margin. Read my lips? Read my letter? The electorate will permit a politician to break his campaign promise if the circumstances change dramatically, but not if the rationale is sheer expediency.
The Democratic primaries we have just witnessed produced Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts as the party’s nominee this year. In chicken-duck-parrot terms, in the earliest stages the voters were looking for a candidate who would challenge President Bush on his pre-emptive war in Iraq. Kerry, who was the presumptive favorite to walk away with the nomination, was squishy (parrot) on the issue while former Vermont Governor Howard Dean was right on. Over the course of the primary season, Senator Kerry moved closer to Dean on Iraq (duck), while on domestic policy the voters realized Dean was a parrot on economic policy to Kerry’s “duck.” It was the “Dean Scream” after he lost the Iowa caucuses that sent shudders through the electorate, with Dean showing a side of himself that by his own admission was “unpresidential.”
What we've learned in this lesson is something of how the masses go about picking a leader. We have certainly not exhausted the subject, but the concepts here are the most basic in the political model I think works best.