The Yes/No President

Jude Wanniski
February 27, 2001


Memo To: Mary Matalin, counselor to VP Cheney
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: The Binary President

Watching you defend President George W. Bush on the weekend CNN Evans&Novak show as Rowlie Evans asked again and again about the President’s uncertain syntax, I thought of former Texas Gov. Ann Richard’s wisecrack that former George W’s daddy was “born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Clearly our young President is hard-wired for malapropisms and tangled syntax and we just have to get used to it and you did an admirable job arguing that the ordinary people of the United States do not care how he says things as long as what he says finds their favor. When I was a wet-behind-the-ears high-school kid in the early 1950s, I used to get “A’s” in English at Brooklyn Tech, and regularly made fun of President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his garbled syntax. It not only made me feel superior, it also assured me that I was right in thinking that Adlai Stevenson, who never made a grammatical mistake, would have been a better President. (When Ike beat Adlai in 1952, I was so sure it was a horrendous mistake by the American people that I got sick to my stomach and had to stay home from school the following day.)

I’ve long since learned what you expressed on Evans&Novak, that the American electorate simply wants their President to make the right “Yes/No” decisions. War? “Yes/No.” Peace “Yes/No.” If the President gets these binary questions answered correctly, he doesn’t even have to speak. Just a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” will work. Former President George H.W. Bush would have had a second term, I believe, if he had turned thumbs down on the tax increase in 1990 to which he had previously told the nation he would say, read my lips, “No.”

I was reminded of this Monday in Robert Bartley’s column in the WSJournal, when he wrote about the most underrated and overrated Presidents of the 20th century, according to a recent survey. Bartley, the WSJ editor for whom I worked in the early 1970s when we were cooking up supply-side economics, argued that Calvin Coolidge is probably the most underrated President in the 20th century. I heartily agree! In fact I was the guy who persuaded Bartley and the other early supply-siders that it was “Silent Cal” Coolidge who first made the argument that if we really want to tax the rich, we should lower their tax rates!!! In other words, Coolidge saw that if the people who were best equipped to create wealth were discouraged by confiscatory tax rates, the economy would not grow as fast. Tax revenues would decline and the non-rich would have to shoulder the tax burden. If you made the tax rates reasonable, the economy would grow faster and the rich would pay a higher percentage of the total. That’s supply-side economics.

More to the point, Mary, is another anecdote about Silent Cal that I came across when I was researching his economic wisdom of the 1920s. As I recall, there was during his administration an attempt by the World War I veterans to get a “bonus” for their service. They marched on Washington and made a big fuss about the bonus and the whole country was talking about whether he should do it or not. The White House let it be known the President was thinking it over. On the appointed day, the Washington press corps, a small contingent at the time, was summoned into the Oval Office. As they gathered around his desk, he was signing various papers. When they had assembled, the President looked up and said one word, “No.” The reporters dashed out of the office to their telephones. In short order, newspaper EXTRAs were on the streets all over the country, with “NO” in black letters on the front page. It was an extremely popular opinion. Historians recorded that when folks went to the movie theaters the following weekend, to watch the silent films of the era, a newsreel displayed the background to the bonus issue and showed a headline saying “No,” and the audiences got to their feet and applauded.

You know how easy it is to be President if you get most of the Yes/No decisions right, Mary. President Bill Clinton had good job ratings because, on balance, his Yes/No choices were not bad. He could have said “No” to reappointing Alan Greenspan as Fed chairman and maybe he would not have been re-elected. Most of the Yes/No decisions a President makes involve choices he is given by his Cabinet. For example, Secretary of State Colin Powell is coming back from the Middle East with a recommendation that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein be dealt with diplomatically and the 10-year sanctions lifted in exchange for UN inspections. The NYTimes front page tells us that the hard-liners in the administration, led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, the really, really hard-line Paul Wolfowitz, would prefer to keep bombing. This will be a very important Yes/No decision when it gets to the President’s desk. As political counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney, it will be up to you to advise him on how he comes down on this matter. My rule of thumb, Mary, is that in peacetime, the electorate prefers reconciliation to force. When the President faces the press corps on Powell’s recommendation, all he has to do is turn “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” It won’t matter much if he stumbles over his syntax.