Of Chicken, Ducks and Parrots
Jude Wanniski
February 24, 1992


One week into the primary season reminds us more than ever why we love presidential election years. The voters are at the peak of their power to influence events, as there is no escaping their verdict in these primaries and the general election to follow. Between elections, special interests are always on hand to tell us what the people think we should be doing to advance their agenda. Or, if they can't produce public opinion polls or other evidence to support their "spin," they will simply denigrate the wisdom of the electorate. If democracy means anything, though, it means that the policy mix which makes the people happiest is the one that is best for the nation. In 1977, in The Way the World Works, I wrote of a "chicken-duck-parrot" political model around the game of charades: The people, in aggregate, know what they want, and it is up to the candidates to guess at it. If the voters want "chicken," the voters will flap around all the way to the general elections, hoping one candidate or the other will get it right. If on election day the Democrat is sure the voters want "duck," and the Republican thinks "parrot," the voters are forced to choose the Democrat, as "duck" is closer to chicken.

President Bush's problem in winning re-election is that four years ago he won with "duck" but delivered "parrot." No matter how loudly he now proclaims "duck," or even "chicken," the voters can no longer count on him to follow through. He has to find some way to persuade the electorate that he will not betray their confidence again. In 1988, his word was his bond. Now, the voters demand collateral. Pat Buchanan did well in New Hampshire even though the voters may not yet see him as a serious contender for the presidency itself. By applauding him, they at least keep the game going, forcing the President to work at it. Unless Bush comes closer to figuring out what will satisfy the voters, he will likely be defeated in November. It will be very difficult for him to win without the voters who abandoned him for Buchanan. Indeed, if Buchanan continues in the weeks ahead to collect more than 30% of the GOP vote, even refining his message to get closer to the electorate's wants, the President will seem such a sorry loser heading toward November that another GOP candidate will appear. The voters might even go so far as to prefer a faithful parrot among the Democrats to a faithless duck in the GOP.

This is why I've been suggesting for many months that the President replace Treasury Secretary Brady. He is the millstone around the President's neck because he permitted, even encouraged, the President to abandon his 1988 mandate in order to balance the budget. Simply throwing Mr. Brady to the wolves will not be sufficient. The President would have to name a Treasury Secretary who is so aggressively "pro-growth" that the voters will be assured the President means business. This is collateral. HUD Secretary Jack Kemp would be gilt-edged collateral. So would Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota or Rep. Dick Armey of Texas. So would Fed Governor Wayne Angell. In the private sector, of credible possibilities, I can think of only Ted Forstmann of Forstmann, Little & Co., as unshakable in his commitment to economic growth and entrepreneurial capitalism. If Forstmann were named Treasury Secretary today, the Buchanan campaign would collapse tomorrow.

On the David Brinkley show Sunday, George Will asked Pat Buchanan if he thought the President should throw Brady and Budget Director Dick Darman to the howling, right-wing wolves. Buchanan said he should not, as it would make him appear weak. Of course, Buchanan knows it would hurt the President only if he appoints another country club Republican to the Treasury post. The Democrats are quiet as mice when the subject of Brady comes up. They have always known Brady is their best hope of winning the White House in '92. Neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post have had a single word of editorial criticism of Nick Brady in his four years. They are not about to tell the President his best friend is destroying his presidency. On the other hand, they helped drive John Sununu out of office because he was blocking their ozone hole and other environmental bogeymen that are part of the Democratic power agenda. (Scare the daylights out of voters, who then finance and vote for liberal Democrats to save them from the bogeymen.)

In my view at least, the Democrats thusfar have not gotten much further than "parrot" as they proceed down the primary path. Former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts is the most attractive, at this point, because he has worked out in his own mind an analytical framework that is based on principles, not public opinion polls. He comes very close to the model I suggested in "A Democratic White House Scenario," 9-24-91: "The first thing our hypothetical Democrat should do in our scenario is drastically discount the importance of public opinion polls --on the grounds that they simply rediscover conventional wisdom, which is a blind alley." Tsongas did this precisely in rejecting a "middle-class tax cut," which candidates Bill Clinton, Tom Harkin and Bob Kerrey embraced after consulting their pollsters. Tsongas thinks of himself as "pro-business" and "aggressively pro-growth," and this comes across in his shameless advocacy of a capital gains tax cut and his refusal to play the "fairness" issue the way the pollsters recommend to Democrats generally.

The best economic plank is that of Jerry Brown, whose 13% flat tax on income and business value added would produce phenomenal economic growth. It would, of course, eliminate all other existing federal taxes, including capital gains and gift-and-estate taxation. It's too good to be true, though, especially coming from a candidate who thusfar seems unelectable. Relentlessly mirthless in the televised debates, angrily throwing around hot words like "obscene" and "corrupt" to describe the Beltway Establishment, Brown seems more hawk than parrot. He did much better in New Hampshire than the pollsters predicted, 8% rather than 4%, and yesterday won the Maine caucuses with 30% by attracting the anti-nuclear environmentalists to his cause. He cannot be anything more than a fringe candidate, though, until he can refine his basically negative message to one of positive populism.

The Democratic Establishment is still assuming Arkansas Governor Clinton will be their nominee. So is the Bush White House. Clinton does come across as the most polished of the Democrats, almost as polished as Pat Buchanan. Organization Democrats continue to believe they lost the White House to Reagan twice because he was so telegenic, and to Bush in '88 because Michael Dukakis was not. Clinton is handsome, perfectly coiffed and carefully programmed to say all the right things. How can he lose? Because, like the President, he now needs collateral, something to persuade the electorate that while he may be faithless in other aspects of his life, he will be faithful to them. This is not likely to happen in '92, although it's possible to imagine Clinton in '96 or 2000 if he behaves himself. Because too many Democrats say they will not vote for him under any circumstances, his candidacy cannot be taken seriously.

Tsongas won a lot of respect by stating he would veto the tax bill concocted by House Democrats. Establishment Democrats are not happy at all at the prospect of a Tsongas in the White House. They "can't find his strings," one former Democratic chairman told The Wall Street Journal last Thursday. If his nomination seems inevitable, though, they will look harder for the strings, hoping to co-opt him as they did Jimmy Carter, who also ran outside the Establishment. If we see Tsongas moving away from them instead, his chances of winning improve. His capgains proposal, for example, is still without specifics, although it has been assumed he will offer only prospective relief. The Journal last Thursday reported Tsongas' issues team pondering a zero rate after a six-year holding period. If he tightens up and makes it retroactive, Tsongas will be very tough. It would make it very easy for the many Republicans who now swear they will never vote for Bush to go Democratic and wait four years to get the White House back with a Reaganaut.

The President seems to know he should not be beating up on Pat Buchanan for this very reason. It makes no sense to shoot the messenger, which is what Buchanan is all about. As with the domestic economy, which he long ago ceded to Brady and Darman, the President appears to be ceding his campaign to his political handlers, who want to beat up Buchanan in the worst way. They will be running negative TV spots against Buchanan in Georgia, starting tonight. This will only play into his hands and make it even harder for the President to win in November, if he gets that far. I'm sorry, Nick. It is nothing personal, but all signs point back to the President's need to put up some collateral. It's got to be you.