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The Wall Street Journal

September 4, 2003


Hold the Applause!


In less than 15 months Americans will go to the polls to decide whether to give President Bush four more years or to select instead one of the nine Democratic candidates who are now vying for the nomination of their party. As a Democrat and a former candidate myself, I have been watching with great interest, respect and sympathy for those who suffer the various ordeals of a grueling campaign schedule.

I have not yet endorsed any of the candidates partly because I call most of them friends and because I am watching the campaigns and the way the candidates are conducting themselves. Among the characteristics I look for is the courage and independence to stand up and tell us something we don't want to hear. I want a leader who will tell us that sometimes we may be part of the problem. It's easy for politicians to say what people want to hear. My vote goes with the candidate who is willing to tolerate a round of boos to say what he thinks is right.

One notable example of that was Joe Lieberman's recent performance before a national gathering of labor leaders. Knowing that some of his views would be unpopular, Mr. Lieberman stood his ground and reaffirmed his support for open markets and free trade and for private school voucher experiments for poor children. He was loudly booed, and in response Mr. Lieberman said, "I'm going to speak the truth; I'm going say what I think is best for America regardless." I wanted to endorse him on the spot. He understands that America has always performed at its best when leaders know how to lead.

* * *

One of my biggest complaints about President Bush is that he is too preoccupied with getting applause from those with extreme views on economic and social issues. This is not a problem because these Americans are always wrong. It is a problem because they are not always right. Like most of us, they are sometimes right and sometimes wrong. The problem is that they threaten to withhold their political support from anyone who isn't "with them" 100% of the time.

Take the issues of tax cuts as an example. In order to please a relatively small number of Americans who believe that tax cuts are good no matter what the consequences, President Bush has undone a decade of Republican-inspired fiscal stewardship that placed the highest value on endowing posterity with savings, investment, and less debt. This stewardship began in 1991 with his father's decision to reject "voodoo economics" and culminated six years later when a Republican House and Senate partnered with a Democratic White House to pass legislation that balanced the federal budget leading to projected surpluses. When George W. Bush was sworn into office in 2001, we were paying down the federal debt with a surplus that he had promised to use to fix Social Security. Much has changed in just two-and-a-half years.

Trouble is, a promise to maintain fiscal discipline doesn't make anyone stand up and cheer. Tax cuts, on the other hand, make millions stand up and cheer and hundreds of thousands so happy they'll write millions of dollars in checks to fund a re-election campaign. The political calculus was simple, ruthless, and irresponsible.

As a former practicing elected representative, let me let you in on a little secret. It is easy for a politician to write and deliver a line that will bring most audiences to their feet. Applause lines have a specific structure that consists of three short sentences delivered sequentially. The first sentence makes an observation: Something is happening in America. The second sentence is a judgment: That something is wrong or it is right. The third sentence is a promise: To pass a law eliminating the wrong or expanding the right. Usually the speaker knows the audience, and plays to it.

The true challenge comes when the speaker knows the audience is wrong and needs to explain why we must do things differently. For a Democrat, that difference frequently means explaining there is a limit to how much we can tax Americans either through the revenue code, the regulatory book, or the lawsuit. Or it means explaining that sometimes force at home or abroad is the only way to achieve safety on the streets or security in the world. Democrats must explain limits and power. Sometimes, in essence, we have to acknowledge that there are times when Republicans are right.

Failure to do so will not just risk a general election defeat. Worse than losing an election is to win it and destroying jobs or tranquility because you say no when you should say yes and yes when you should say no. The consequences of such mistakes are directly proportional to the amount of power held by the person making the decision. And no person on this planet has more power than the president of the United States.

So, show me the person, like Mr. Lieberman, who has angered a partisan Democratic audience with an unpopular idea and you have someone with what it takes to be our next president. And the next time you jump to your feet with applause for a candidate who says what you want to hear, remember that you may be leading them -- rather than the other way around.

Mr. Kerrey, a former senator from Nebraska who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, is president of the New School University in New York.

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Updated September 4, 2003