In the late summer of 1994, I found myself in the Rose Garden with the president of the United States and two other reporters—part of a Clinton schmoozefest offensive. As the gathering ended, I abandoned my journalistic purity to offer a suggestion about the just-launched Major League Baseball strike.
“You know, you might want to look at the Taft-Hartley Act,” I said, referring to the 1947 law that gives the president the power to halt some strikes for up to 80 days. “Doesn’t this strike affect the national health and safety?”
Failing to notice the tongue in my cheek—my own tongue, to be sure—Clinton looked at me as if I had taken complete leave of my senses. Coincidence or not, that was the last time I was invited to any private, semiprivate, or public event with the president. But now that another baseball strike looms as a distinct possibility, I wonder whether the current president might want to take a serious look at the idea. A new baseball strike would pose a distinct threat to the president’s political health and safety. Clearly, the last one did.
Look at what happened in 1994: The Republicans won a sweeping midterm victory, taking control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954. Some of the most powerful members of the House were kicked out of office, including the speaker of the House. Postelection entrails-readers talked about the “angry white men” who had flocked to the polls, while loyal Democrats—including the African-American constituency, the most loyal of all—stayed home.
Why did this happen? The economy was continuing its decadelong expansion; unemployment and inflation were low; the deficit was shrinking; the country was at peace; Monica Lewinsky was not even a gleam in a cable-news executive’s eye. So, what could have instilled such anger in the male electorate? Could it be that the absence of the World Series for the first time since 1904 had left America’s baseball fans feeling deprived, even cheated? Did the missing fall classic, now pushed by expansion and the playoff schedule ever closer to Election Day, sour the mood of the electorate enough to lead to the mass ejection of the Democrats’ team?
That possibility is very much with us now. What overhangs our political climate is a growing sense that things have soured in the land. It is a sense captured dramatically by one of the most significant benchmarks of the national mood—the poll question that asks if the country is essentially “on the right track.” After Sept. 11, an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that 72 percent of Americans said yes, we were on the right track. Now, though, every public opinion survey shows that the pessimists are in the plurality. The gloom seems rooted in a broad sense that the people and institutions we trusted have let us down. They couldn’t protect our safety last September; they couldn’t protect our financial future; they violated the trust of investors, workers; they violated the trust of congregants; and when we turned to the playing fields for diversion, they couldn’t even figure out how to end an All-Star game.
If there is one political constant, it is that the party in power always suffers when Americans skulk to the polls looking for a way to vent their anger. What kind of mood will American voters be in if another postseason of baseball has been snatched away from them?
So, Mr. President, let me temporarily abandon my journalistic virginity once again and offer this counsel: Your predecessor scoffed at my suggestion, and he endured six years of an opposition-controlled Congress—and an impeachment as well. Your own father lost the White House in large measure because the voters saw him as too passive in the face of challenges. Besides—in a time when the wealthy are under such suspicion, what better way to prove your populist credentials than to arbitrate a conflict that would permit you to assail, with fine impartiality, millionaires on one side and billionaires on the other? If it weren’t for the egregious mixing of metaphors, I’d say this one is a slam-dunk.