Parrot Soup and the GOP Dilemma

January 12, 2010

For release noon Jan. 12 and thereafter (695 words)

“The cynical view — Republicans can sit back and wait — is naive. The idealistic view — we must stand for things and move on them now — is shrewder.”

— Peggy Noonan, columnist and former speech writer
for President Ronald Reagan

As the political class resumes rolling the dice for our future, now is the time to calculate the odds and place our bets.

The talk at any Indiana coffee shop is that this or that incumbent is dead meat versus any challenger, however unknown, of whichever party and for all offices. You should wish democracy worked so well.

More meaningful is a Rasmussen opinion survey last week that found only eight percent of respondents confident the average congressman (read politician generally) is more interested in helping other people than furthering his or her own interests. A mere eight percent are confident their personal views are being represented.

And a Gallup report found for the first time in its history that a majority, 55 percent, say the ethical standards of congressmen are “low” or “very low.” That is almost double from decade ago. The same opinions are expressed at the legislative and municipal level.
 
Surprisingly, this has surprised the pols — not that there is dishonesty in politics, perhaps, but that integrity has risen to the status of an issue. They had come to depend on a disconnect between ethical performance and electoral outcome, that and a general blurring of ideological lines.
 
All of this is predicated on changes in the degree of “rational ignorance,” a way of explaining why the electorate’s window of attention is sometimes closed and sometimes open.
 
Dr. Eric Schansberg, an Indiana University professor who is both an economist and a politician, has given this window a lot of thought. “The fact of the matter is that most people are busy mowing their lawns and raising their children — and aren’t going to give much time to thinking about politics,” he wrote last year. “Thankfully, we live in a country where this is possible.” Liberty, in other words, makes it rational to be ignorant of political detail.
 
Not any more. Politics is what everybody wants to talk about. As government has attacked our lives, the windows of attention have been thrown wide open. We are thinking past the blanket disillusionment reflected in public-opinion polling. We even know exactly what will solve all our problems— a chicken.
 
In 1978 in the depths of Jimmy Carter’s malaise, Jude Wanniski, an editor for the Wall Street Journal, wrote the aptly titled book, “The Way the World Works.” It became the blueprint for the Reagan administration. Wanniski’s chapter on politics began with the obvious: The most powerful politicians are good at guessing what a constituency wants without sacrificing personal advantage.

To represent the object of that guessing, Wanniski used Herbert Hoover’s 1928 allusion to a “chicken in every pot” as the purest expression of political will on any given election day.
 
In good times, when the electorate’s window of attention is near closed and its political expression muffled by affluence, the guessing is not particularly critical but it can be difficult. An insensitive politician, to continue Wanniski’s caricature, might not get any closer to the expression of a chicken than a turkey vulture or even a worm.

The vulture’s feathers would seem to give it the advantage here, although Wanniski issues a caution: The campaign might reveal the vulture to be a dangerously opportunistic fellow compared with the poultry ideal. Voters might play it safe in that case, gag down the worm and hope for the best in a future election cycle.

In other words, a candidate has better odds just doing what he or she believes is right instead of trying to finesse an electorate.

In difficult times, as now, with our windows wide open and tea parties on every corner, there are more clues. Indeed, the candidate listening carefully to the coffee-shop talk might find it easy to get as close to the expression of a chicken as, say, a parrot or a duck. That will not be close enough, though, if he misses the unspoken expectation that philosophical conviction should guide policy stances. And that is true even if it means — horror of horrors — sacrificing a political career.
 
Professional politicians in both parties are betting they can serve up parrot or duck soup in place of the real thing, meaning they can avoid the hobble of a principled position and keep on keeping on. In particular, a cynical GOP leadership thinks it merely has to wait for Democrats to self-destruct.

That’s the worst bet.

T. Craig Ladwig is editor of The Indiana Policy Review. He was an aide to Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum and an editorial writer for the Washington Times during the Reagan administration. Contact him at cladwig@inpolicy.org.



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