Surprise and Politics

Peter W. Schramm

December 1, 1998

November 19, 1998. Given the day (Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863) I would really rather focus on something that I already know is meaningful and lasting than to pay attention to the political events of the day. But alas some things can’t be helped. Judge Starr is testifying. The Democrats on the Judiciary Committee speak up, thus proving that great events can be made small when passed through the medium of small minds. Iraq is not yet bombed again. The Republicans just chose their new leadership in the House after the election surprise. The future speaker of the House is talking about how the GOP is going to save Social Security and how he is most interested in making the trains run on time (and I didn’t even know we still had trains!). Vice President Gore just offended some foreigners in their own home. President Clinton is in Tokyo telling the Japanese not to have an industrial policy. The (Diverse! Diverse!) Democrats elected an all-white-male leadership in t
he House of Representatives.

There is serious talk that a guy named Bush may run for president and, according to Gallup, he would beat Gore. And then there is another Bush governor. Is a Bush-Bush ticket possible, or are there nepotism rules? And Minnesota, noted in the past for turning to tedious Scandinavian suits for their politicians, turns to a former wrestler and Navy Seal. And he is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. And the liberal state of Washington votes to end affirmative action. A fellow as exciting as the color grey is elected governor of California, the largest and (until now) the most exciting state. Oh yes, President Clinton has come out firmly against partisanship in politics.

The President has a job for at least two more years, but Gingrich is looking for one. Is the Ashbrook Center looking for a new Director?

You look for certainties, for constants. Russia is still not well governed. Terrorism lives. The Middle East peace process is still a process. Saddam Husein is still the smartest tyrant around. Robert Taft is an important politician in Ohio. The media and the Democratic Party are still devoted to public opinion polling, as to a narcotic. High school students in America are getting a better education than those in Malawi, but not those in Bulgaria. I like to argue with people who can smile while they ventilate. Self-evident truths are still self-evident.

Politics is fun. The main thing about studying politics (or doing it) is that things never get boring. You should always be prepared to be surprised. Of course–in your professional capacity–you can’t say that. You are asked to predict what is going to happen, who is going to win, and so on. When you do this, you do it, of course, with the unshakable confidence of a professional. (Any amateur can be wishy-washy.) You give reasons. You lay out an argument. It sounds pretty good, whether you do it over lunch, in the classroom, in USA Today, for the Associated Press, on radio or television.

Then, when the event you were all wrong about is over, the same media call you back and ask you what happened and what does it mean. With unshaken professional confidence, you reflect on the complex variables at work. Well, the Democrats got more people out to vote than everyone thought they would, and the Republicans got fewer out than they thought they would. And the Republicans didn’t offer up anything to distinguish themselves from the Democrats. Oh yeah, the people really weren’t very interested in impeaching the President, as it turns out.

The thing you can predict with genuine confidence is that those with whom you made bets about the outcome come around to collect. So you spend the next two weeks taking people to lunch and dinner (because as a professional it would be unfair to wager real money), and you gain a few pounds.

So you were wrong. But that doesn’t stop you from continuing to pontificate. You give other talks, other interviews, and without skipping a beat you tell everyone that the election of the year 2000 will be an important one. It is almost certainly the case that the party that wins the presidency will take the House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court with it. Divided government will finally end and then everything will be clear. Then there will be no surprises. Well, unless Jesse "the Mind" Ventura runs for president. Then it is possible that he will be elected, the Republicans will hold the Senate, and the Democrats take back the House. So we’ll end up with a tripartite division.

Don’t panic, I don’t mean it. Just trying to cover my bets.

Politics is exciting. Perhaps only war is more exciting. In war everything is always fluid, always changing. Besides, you’re getting shot at. It’s exhilarating when you can hear the bullets go by. If you can’t hear them you die. But you can only die once in war. Not so in politics, as Churchill knew. He said: "Politics are almost as exciting as war and quite as dangerous. In war you can only be killed once, but in politics many times."