A Lesson in Politics from Hubert Humphrey

In 1971 Hubert Humphrey was running for president (again; but lost the Democratic nomination to George McGovern), and I was an economics major at the University of Florida. Humphrey was giving a campaign speech on campus and I went to listen.

Humphrey was facing a very rowdy crowd which was so loud in its jeers as he was introduced that I wondered if he would even get a chance to speak. He managed to quiet down the crowd by telling them, “Listen to what I have to say, and if you don’t like my message then you should boo me. But wait to hear me out before you pass judgment.

Having calmed the crowd, Humphrey went on to give a masterful speech, met by enthusiastic cheers when he was done. The man who was almost booed off the stage before he started had completely won over the crowd. I was amazed.

As an economics major I still remember the wisdom Humphrey shared on the subject. He said, “The economy is like an eight cylinder automobile that is only running on six cylinders. We have to get those other two cylinders running again.” The crowd went wild with approval!

I am still in awe of the wisdom Humphrey showed. His proposal to fix the economy was, “We have to get those other two cylinders running again,” and the crowd loved it.

This is but one example of a broader political truth. You can get more political support by being critical of the status quo than by proposing some specific change. Lots of people are dissatisfied with current conditions, or think we could do better, but everybody has a different idea about what we should do to change things. If you want to improve the status quo in some vague way, you’ll get lots of support; if you are in favor of some specific change you lose the support of those who think a different change would be more appropriate.

This is why all politicians are vague about their plans and policies. Humphrey’s brilliant speech was filled with bits of wisdom like getting those other two cylinders running, but was short on specifics of how those things might actually be accomplished. I have seen this time and time again in the decades since Humphrey’s speech impressed this on me.

Now, as the nation is contemplating major health care policy reforms, I see the same thing. Lots of people want change, but everybody has a different idea of what changes would be appropriate. The easy part was for President Obama to rally support for reform. The status quo can be improved. But it will be impossible to get agreement on what reforms are appropriate because everyone has different ideas. Even if the Democratic majority is able to pass something, whatever passes will still leave a huge amount of dissatisfaction in its wake. It’s partly partisan, but even the Democrats in Congress don’t agree on what should be done.

The direct lesson from Humphrey’s brilliant speech is that politicians can gain more political support from being against something than in favor of a specific replacement. Isn’t this what “hope and change” meant when Obama was campaigning last year?

A more indirect lesson is that market solutions have an advantage over government solutions because more people can get the alternatives they prefer. When government passes a policy, it applies to everybody. In the market, people have a choice, and the choices some people choose don’t close off options for others. Your having a Coke doesn’t interfere with me drinking a Dr Pepper.

What has many people concerned about impending health care reform is that options now available to them will be cut off. It’s not unreasonable to think that a government-subsidized public option will crowd out private sector alternatives. It’s also not unreasonable to think that even without a public option, additional government regulation will limit private sector alternatives, because that has already happened.

The lesson I picked up from Hubert Humphrey all those years ago still rings true. Lots of people support health care reform, but far fewer will support any specific reform.  Humphrey’s lesson shows why Obama’s reforms face a rocky road, and why, even if something passes, it won’t gain the president political support.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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