Jude Wanniski
March 16, 1998


Sometime last year, The Wall Street Journal had an editorial about “Followership,” in which GOP congressional backbenchers were chastized for not following the lead of the leadership. In the Sunday New York Times, there is a long op-ed (“Couch Potato Politics”) by a Boston University sociologist named Alan Wolfe who blames the absence of big, new public policy ideas on the current economic prosperity. The depressed 1930s were a great time for big, new policy ideas, he notes, while the prosperous 1950s were accompanied by bland policies. He says we should not have to have another Depression to have bold ideas, but notes with disapproval the “parochial” attitude of the people in Columbus, Ohio, “who confronted Administration officials on our Iraq policy.” They “expressed love for their country, but not in a way that disposed them to assume the burdens of life-and-death responsibilities.” To Professor Wolfe, this indicates there is “little inclination” to accept our international obligations. Again, the problem is followership. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, who has made a career out of being as cool as a cucumber, a few weeks ago showed great irritation when asked on "Evans&Novak" about complaints the Republican leadership is playing “Littleball.” The charge had been leveled by Steve Forbes, who thinks the GOP should be pushing bold, new ideas, like his flat tax. Lott challenged the “littleball” critics to come into the government to see how difficult life is, instead of standing outside the Beltway throwing rocks. 

What makes life so difficult and Littleball inevitable is the absence of a political mandate from the electorate to the government. Presidential elections are supposed to produce direction, and mid-term elections are supposed to produce mid-course corrections to the direction. The 1996 national elections produced no mandate other than the clear sentiment of the electorate that it wanted the Republican Congress to work with the Democratic President. President Clinton’s re-election was entirely predicated on his willingness to play only Littleball on policy and protect the American people from the excesses of Newt Gingrich. Remember Maureen Dowd’s column in the NYTimes, “Honey, I Shrunk the Presidency”? Why didn’t the electorate give the Republicans the White House along with the Congress? Because its nominee, Bob Dole, gave every indication that he would encourage the excesses of Newt on budget issues, fighting the teachers’ union, building more prisons and throwing the keys away, and dropping bigger bombs on Iraq. No thank you. 

The American people are showing unparalleled approval for both the President and the Congress, because they are keeping their campaign promises to play Littleball. This does not mean big things are not required of the government. It only means nobody yet has figured out what it is that must be done. Alan Wolfe, the sociologist, is right when he says big, bold ideas are needed, but it doesn’t mean bombing Iraq. It means designing a New World Order that makes sense to us and the rest of the world and a plan to reorganize the national government in a way that makes sense to the American people. We are really going to have to wait for the next presidential election for that kind of direction. In the mid-term elections coming up, the President really is in no position to suggest mid-course corrections to a direction he never suggested in the first place. The Republicans can pick up seats in November, or lose seats, depending on the issues they choose to develop. If they ask for more seats to cut tax rates where they remain too high for optimum growth and productivity, they will gain. If they turn the election over to the Christian Coalition, they will lose -- as they did last week in the special election for a California House seat that should have gone Republican. The electorate knows the only good directional ideas are in the GOP, but it also knows that’s where the worst ideas are as well.