Political Leadership
Jude Wanniski
March 26, 2004


Memo To: Students of Supply-Side University
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Political Leadership & Wagon Trains

The heart of this lesson was presented immediately after the November elections in 2002. It concludes with some observations on the presidential election process now well underway.

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From the dawn of civilization, the human species has been consciously pondering the question of leadership. In the animal world, leaders are also selected by necessity, for a species to survive, but only men have devoted serious intellectual effort to the the process by which they will choose their leaders. Civilization means organized society, which has the ability to tax and spend, which means those societies that have systems of producing better leaders who know how to make the best use of those resources will defeat and absorb those that have weaker systems.

I’m not sure it is true, although I once read it someplace, that the very first people who were hired by civilized society to do a government job that did not require heavy lifting, fishing or hunting were astronomers. These were the very first “economists,” who were paid to study the stars in order to figure out when the seasons began and ended. If you had a top-notch astronomer, he could tell you when to plant and when to harvest to get the most out of your workers. In later centuries, the special garb of these wizards included long, flowing robes, and tall conical hats with pictures of stars and moons and planets on them. Remember Merlin, a key actor in the King Arthur legend?

To this day, if the President of the United States does not have a good Treasury Secretary, his chances of success are poor. The downhill slide of the economy since President Bush was elected did not seem to bother the voters this week, when they gave Republicans control of the Senate as well as the House. Leadership may be weak at Treasury and the White House on economic matters, but the post-election analysis is that the Democratic leadership on economic issues has been non-existent. The voters take the best of what they are offered. The test of the President now that he has all the primary levers of power in his political party will be how he uses them to bring real economic growth instead of the statistical growth which is the result of massive deficit spending. The Democrats, meanwhile, can go into retreat and reassess the nature of the problems facing the nation, looking for new leaders to replace those who have failed them.

Because I try to think of complex issues in political economy in the simplest terms, my background, education and experience led me to think of a wagon train heading west to California as a metaphor for leadership. The people in the wagon train put themselves in the hands of a leader who will get them to the promised land and if they pick the wrong leader, they may all get scalped by hostile Indians on the trail he chooses. It was this picture I presented to Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, when he was planning to run for the Republican nomination for President in 1996. Those of you old enough to be observers of that election will remember the press corps incessantly questioned Dole’s “vision,” and Dole himself began to refer to “the vision thing.” In other words, the leader not only has to know what he is looking for and what the people he is leading are looking for, but also, more importantly, how to get them where they want to go, with as little muss and fuss as possible.

When it came to “the vision thing,” nobody ever accused Ronald Reagan of lacking it. He not only had a sense of where the American people wanted to go, that promised land, that City on a Hill, but he had a clear sense of direction. He was the leader of the wagon train and for the most part knew which turns to take, which paths to avoid. The men and women he chose to assist him might have their own ideas on the right path, and Reagan would listen to them carefully, but if he saw they did not share his vision to begin with and did not have information he had not thought about, he simply would ignore them and proceed on the path he had reckoned was the right one. Our system of government is arranged to give every advantage to such a leader, as the national electorate really knows where it wants to go from one election cycle to the next, and only needs a vessel into which it will pour its ideas on direction and pace of travel. There may be two candidates for the presidency who know the direction of travel, but then the one who seems most likely to strike the right pace of travel down that path will be chosen.

Bob Dole did not have that sure sense of the electorate’s silent wish, which is why he was accused of lacking “the vision thing.” He’d spent his political career as a successful legislator, able to translate the simple needs and wants of his fellow Kansans into several terms in the House and Senate as their representative. And he was sufficiently subdued in his own ideological beliefs that he could be chosen as the Leader of his fellow Republicans in the U.S. Senate. For a man to be chosen his party’s leader in the Senate or the House is a fairly good sign that he will not be chosen as President by the national electorate. That is, to be successful in managing the divergent interests of 50 egos, one has to be flexible enough to put aside all burning personal beliefs. The Leader adds up 50 or so viewpoints and divides by 50 to figure out which way to go. The national electorate can and must have these kinds of leaders in the legislative arena, but when it comes to the Presidency, they must find men who have more of a sense of direction. Legislative leaders like Lyndon Johnson can make it to the White House, but usually only as LBJ did, as a Vice President who succeeds to a President who dies in office.

Still, Dole had a shot at winning, I told him one day in his Senate Leadership office, if he chose the right people to help him get the wagon train through Indian country, to the land of milk and honey. He knows he wants to get the people to the land of milk and honey, but is not quite sure which trail to take. This is why a leader will choose exceptional scouts, to ride ahead and make sure the chosen trail is clear of danger. Unfortunately for Dole, he did not have a good run with the scouts he chose to conduct his presidential bid, as I wrote in my book about the campaign, The Last Race of the 20th century.

Every time his campaign seemed to be getting some traction, his campaign team would point him in the direction of the Indians and he would be attacked. With all his personal weaknesses, President Clinton clearly had better personnel, better strategists, and a better sense of direction. In my book, I recount how I urged Dole to draw up a list of 10 promises, not about what he would do, but how he would conduct the office of the presidency. For example, I urged him to promise that he would accept the petitions of every government on earth that wished to be on better terms with the United States, and give those petitions a fair hearing. Dole, I believed, was attracted to the ten ideas I offered, but his "scouts" were already bent on "saving" the American people from the "axis of evil," and did not want to hear any talk of diplomacy. They killed my idea, which was being advocated internally by Dole's running mater, Jack Kemp, who styled himself "a well-armed dove." Dole's top advisors on these matters, if you did not know, were Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and his national chairman, Donald Rumsfeld.

Governor George W. Bush did not seem to have a much better sense of direction than Dole when he began his campaign for the presidency, and in my opinion he seemed to be relying on the same people who performed so poorly for his father in 1992. I’d always believed Vice President Al Gore would be easy for a Republican to defeat, because he represented total security. In other words, any path to the promised land was too risky, so Gore would propose to circle the wagons and sit still for four years, fretting about global warming and too much economic growth. The electorate almost chose that course, but our system of government gave the nod, by one vote in the Electoral College, to Bush.

In The Way the World Works, which I wrote in 1977, I made the simple argument that the advance of civilization has been the result of trial-and-error experiments in search of better systems for producing political leaders. The masses of the world population -- the global family -- knows the direction they would like as history moves forward, but they still are limited by the imperfect systems of finding the right leaders. There is no doubt anywhere in the world that some form of "democracy" is the system of choice, but it is not easy to figure out what "form" that will take for a nation that has not been led by leaders chosen the way we choose ours.

In the presidential race underway, it is much easier to see George W. Bush as the kind of leader who really does have a "vision" on where to lead the wagon train than Senator Kerry. That doesn't mean Kerry would not make a better President, though, because the President has not had a sterling record of choosing the path to get the US to the promised land. The shortest distance between two points, for Mr. Bush, is a straight line. Which is why we are now surrounded by Indians and a wagon train loaded with the people of the rest of the world who are horrified at the route the US has chosen, with no regard for their opinions. For Mr. Bush, right makes might, but it's not clear he's right.

Senator Kerry is clearly a political animal of the type described above, a legislator who really does not develop the mindset that provides "vision," but rather slices and dices day after day, year after year, trying to do the best he can just to get through the current session of Congress without messing up too much. He is no Ronald Reagan, the kind of leader who knows where he wants to go and what circuitous trail is the best to get there. But if he chooses the right "scouts" to tell him how best to get to the Promised Land of peace and prosperity, the electorate can determine that with all his flaws, he is a better bet for the next four years than another four with Mr. Bush.

What do I think? If I had to vote right today, I'd say President Bush would be a better bet than Kerry. I say this mainly because it does seem Mr. Bush has a much better feel for the economics of the political economy than Sen. Kerry. The folks on the wagon train can avoid being scalped by the Indians if they cross the desert, but they might all croak when the water runs out. I literally follow my own advice to SSU students on these matters and wait until the last minute possible before I decide who we should choose to lead the wagon train. Then again, I only get one vote.