8:37 a.m. Friday 8/2/96
“Stein Goes Skeptical, Gasp.” A characterization about opinions in a population is based, like all knowledge, on a combination of general or abstract information (“facts” organized and interpreted by “theory”) and personal experience (some of it specific, some of it crystallized as “intuition”). The most definite statements may be made about opinion on a specific subject in a well-defined population. When I say that some economists think a flat tax would stimulate economic growth mightily and other economists doubt it, I have only personal experience, not a survey of economics professors, to back me up; but I doubt that even Herb would say that this is a deeply uncertain proposition about which not much is really known and not much could possibly be discovered. At the other extreme, when I say that antigovernment sentiment and concern over social breakdown run strong among Americans, that income redistribution has lost much of its former appeal in our politics, and that a flat tax would be very popular and widely regarded as “fair,” I am entering into much more uncertain and contestable territory; I ought to have more than personal experience and intuition to back me up, and I do. AEI sponsors major research programs on U.S. politics and public opinion, tax policy, health care policy, social security and retirement income policy, and trends in the distribution of income and wealth. We have held many scores of conferences and published many scores of books, monographs, and articles on these subjects just in the past year, featuring work by meticulous, highly regarded scholars of varying political inclinations. I have read everything we have published on these subjects and much that others have published. Every proposition on these subjects in my previous submissions is based on my reading of these studies, and not on any loose theories about political momentum or hot hands. I cited data only once (for the relative performance of Medicare and private health insurance over the past decade), but this was for purposes of brevity (imperfectly realized) not bamboozlement. In some cases, such as my assertion that recent changes in private health insurance plans have not been particularly painful, readers will be able to evaluate my claims based on their own experiences. It remains the case that most of what is said about large political subjects, by me and others, is very partial–both in the sense of being fragmentary and in the sense of being selective and intended to persuade. At a think tank, uncertainty and bias are occasions for further research and debate; but the essence of politics is the necessity to choose and act in the face of great uncertainty. Herb’s White House joke about political advice is very funny, but it is closer to a pun than to a logical argument. That half of political candidates lose does not mean that half of political advice is wrong. In politics as in sports, we play according to rules designed to generate definite outcomes regardless of the absolute goodness or badness of play. If I play the identical game of chess against my daughter and Gary Kasparov, I will win one and loose the other, but this doesn’t mean I was right in one case and wrong in the other. Moreover elections are not just contests of electoral strategy. Candidates are constrained not only by their relative political acumen but by objective circumstances, external to the election, that they cannot control. And their electoral strategies are employed not merely to win elections but to advance certain policies and political ideals: hollow victories, and defeats that advance the loser’s causes, are not infrequent in politics. Finally, there are degrees of winning and losing in politics, even in presidential politics where (unlike Congress) the winning party gets 100 percent of formal control for 51 percent of the vote. A 51-percent president is generally much more constrained in dealing with the opposition, the Congress, the special-interest groups, etc., than a 60-percent president. I agree emphatically with Herb, however, that an astonishing amount of political advice, even at the highest levels of the game, is flimsy and unfounded. I would put MORE than half of the political advice I have heard in this category. Having suffered through quite a few White House strategy sessions myself, I have concluded that presidents do just as well politically when they follow the counsel of their economic advisers and ignore their political advisers as when they do the opposite. But of course this is just an opinion and I have no way of proving it. Bob Bartley
9:23 a.m. Friday 8/2/96
An epistemological diversion So we will interrupt our discussion of politics to take up epistemology. Sensations originate in the outside world and not your head, dammit, and if a tree falls in the forest there is too noise. And in assessing public affairs, there is an ineffable quality called judgment. Without making any undue claim of modesty, I think that after going to the plate five times a week for 20 or 30 years, my batting average gives me some confidence in suggesting what will and won’t sell with the voters. What is judgment? You need intelligence, of course, but also a keen sense of observation, and an ability to sort the relevant from the irrelevant. It helps to surround yourself with associates and acquaintances (we call them news sources, and judgment a nose for news) who have tended to be more right than wrong over the years. Yes, you read the polls, carefully enough to learn that the big Clinton majorities come only when pollsters push the undecided to discover “leanings.” You stay on top of the news, and the anecdotal evidence also counts. But at the end of the day, this formula won’t guarantee success, and for some won’t help much. As Duke Ellington said, if you have to ask you’re never gonna know. However unsatisfactory this answer, there’s ultimately no alternative. When I was back in graduate school, I ran with a bunch of political scientists who were going to program everything into computers. Having taken up journalism at an engineering school, I knew something about math and statistics, and surprised them by being pretty good at their game while telling them it would never work. Economists are better, since the subject of their discipline can more readily be quantified, but not decisively so. In the end, judgment counts. I looked in on Herb’s panel on taxes and growth, with Barry Bosworth and Bob Eisner and the rest reaching a consensus that the effect of tax cuts would be uncertain and in any rate small. A similar consensus holds that we can’t grow at more than 2.5 percent a year without inflation; the operative consensus of economists seems to be, indeed, that if the Fed spots growth faster than that it should go stamp it out. So we have a bond market in which signs of growth are bearish, and not a very happy citizenry. It reminds me of the consensus of the profession in 1980 that inflation could be curbed only by a recession lasting several years. (“How long this would take, and how much unemployment would be entailed, are unknown though the period may be five years.”–Herb Stein.) In the event, we had a stiff recession in 1982, but by 1983 were in a boom. A few of us pretty much predicted the latter at the time, when the Reagan tax cuts finally got phased in. (No one, however, predicted that cuts would pay for themselves in the first year). Economics is called the gloomy profession, I think, because it has never succeeded in quantifying what a great intuitive economist, much more modest than his disciples, once called “animal spirits.” Judgments can sometimes be empirically tested. I think that with a Fed watching the price level instead of growth, and tax cuts designed to unleash animal spirits we can grow at over 3 percent without inflation, as we have in the past. I think that the Clinton scandals will prove very important, both electorally and historically; others disagree. I am on record as saying that despite the polls, the trend of history means this election is Bob Dole’s to lose. He has to avoid gaffes in picking a vice president or in the debates, and he has to sharpen his differences with the Democrats rather than blur them by moving to what the pollsters and media define as “the center.” We will see over the next few months about these political judgments, and perhaps over the next few years about the economic ones. Life is uncertain, and there is no other choice. Gov. Frank Keating
11:33 a.m. Friday 8/2/96
Mary’s prediction earlier in the week–“the country will follow him (Dole) where they already are”–points to the central problem the Clinton strategists have been tackling since early this year. If 1 is very liberal and 10 very conservative, the country is 6.5 or 7 … but President Clinton’s record is perhaps a 3, while the Dole record falls right where the country is. Now add the timing of certain upcoming events. They must craft a Clinton speech to be delivered to a very, very liberal Democratic convention (maybe a 1.5) and the nation (6.5 or 7) via TV. What do you say? How do you present a Xerox of the GOP platform to a Democratic convention dominated by the most liberal interest groups in the country? Not even Gene Kelly could dance that fast. After the convention, the incumbent president must shed a bit of his presidential aura and descend to the status of candidate several days a week. So I wonder how effective the Clinton two-step is going to continue to be. Presidential campaigns are tactical from announcement through conventions: win this week’s primary, refute that opponent’s charges. Post-convention, they become more strategic, and that is where elections are won or lost. Dole has been in tactical mode, while Clinton, with no primary challenge, has had the luxury of thinking and acting strategically all along. That’s going to change. Dole’s strategy? He has to address the widely perceived inverse relationship between growth/prosperity and tax/spending policies. There are rich veins in the cultural issues … not so much in the areas of immigration and affirmative action, where too strident a rhetoric leads to an “us vs. them” debate, but in a general national disgust with the hyphenization of America. Dole is well suited to a “bring us back together” appeal. And never forget the potent national concern over crime/drugs. Here, Dole has a tremendous edge. Is Bill Clinton, who didn’t inhale and whose staff has had all kinds of clearance problems due to widespread drug use, the man to take seriously on this issue? Then, imagine Bob Dole caught with a reefer. Unthinkable! The Clinton act to date has been quite skillful, like the Wallendas on the high wire. But when the Wallendas fell, they fell hard. He can’t keep talking balanced budget and welfare reform while he vetoes balanced budget measures and welfare reform because they aren’t “kind” enough. Let’s remember that this is the same president who was in the opinion poll dumpster 18 months ago and whose hard negatives remain quite high … there are a lot of people out there who have made up their minds about Bill Clinton, in a very negative way, and they are not likely to move to favorable. Mr. Clinton is the used car salesman, lots of backslapping and “Hey, Buddy!” Bob Dole is the banker who’s going to approve your loan … a little forbidding, perhaps, but certainly solid and trustworthy. You may prefer to go out for a beer with the car salesman, but who are you going to trust with your wallet or your wife? Or another analogy–Aesop’s tortoise and hare. That old tortoise Dole just keeps plodding along while Mr. Bill Hare flits through the woods, dazzled by his own grace and speed. Who’s got his eye on the finish line? I think Americans feel ominously dislocated. They don’t understand the politically correct mania, they instinctively know there’s something fundamentally wrong with welfare policy, a deficit-oriented fiscal policy, neglect of defense spending, affirmative action. What they need and want–crave, really–is a dose of steady, common-sense stability. That is what Bob Dole can give them; he needs to communicate that, and if he does, the contrast with the Clinton style will be indelible. Thanks to all for the week, it’s been a pleasure. My running-mate thoughts: sentimental pick–Don Nickles, although electorally speaking it wouldn’t be wise. Prediction–Connie Mack Mary Matalin
12:49 p.m. Friday 8/2/96
First, allow me to express my gratitude to my fellow panelists and moderator for a provocative conversation. If this was as much fun for Slate readers as it was for me, I take back all the mean things I’ve ever said about Michael Kinsley. (Until he trashes me again–but for the moment, I wipe the slate clean.) All female consultants I know check in with their mothers; those with children canvass their kids’ playmates’ parents. As a last resort, we read, re-read and commit to memory the “verbatims”–questions for which no multiple-choice answers limit options. We read editorials and letter to the editors of local papers. Conservatives especially peruse daily talk radio digests. I never don’t eavesdrop in grocery check-out lines or thumb through People Magazine while waiting in line. And, of course, the C-SPAN callers always provide continuous background noise. In short, the least depended upon among the most superstitious (which, not coincidentally, are the most creative) consultants are straight numerical polls. In every presidential election I’ve worked, these non-scientific barometers foretold election outcomes with greater success than polls. And far more often that the polls ever reflect, one will hear conversations in check-out lines concerning “our boys in Bosnia” or the “waste of Haiti” or the “damned U.N.” Mostly what is being generated, though not articulated, is a desire for worldwide respect, peace through strength, and a strong and deep strain of good old-fashioned patriotism. (How’s that for a segue to foreign policy?!) Which means, voters like the image of a strong, stable, dignified commander in chief, though they rarely understand or care about the minutiae of foreign policy. Hence, all Bill Clinton had to do on the topic in 1992 was orate to the right of George Bush. Good image. Too bad he didn’t know how to follow up. We (Bush ‘92) tried unsuccessfully to make the connection between foreign policy success and expanding foreign markets (too much of a “three-cushion shot” for the typical voter). Dole is solid on the tough commander in chief image–he only needs to define a coherent construct for foreign intervention. Thanks again for an interesting week and the best to Slate.