Connecticut Shows How Leaders Can't Lead

Someone has been using Connecticut to try to teach us all a lesson.

All summer long, that unlucky state has suffered through a budget and tax deadlock that has just about paralyzed its government. To those in the middle of it, trying to find a solution, it is a nightmare that never seems to end. But to some with long memories, it is an irony almost too rich to be coincidental.


For nearly all of this century, Connecticut was the model of political discipline and obedience, the state where office-holders and voters alike did as they were told. Every spring, legislators took their seats and awaited orders. Early in the century, they came from Republican boss J. Henry Roraback, who ran the legislature from a hotel room in downtown Hartford; later the boss was Democrat John M. Bailey, who operated out of the Capitol corridors. But either way, the engines of government ran on time.

In the fall, citizens went to the polls and dutifully voted either straight Democratic or straight Republican, which they could do by pressing a single lever as late as 1986. The Baileys and the Rorabacks decided who the candidates would be.


It is in this bastion of bossism that we are now confronted with a governor who was elected by repudiating both parties and has virtually no friends in either one; a corps of individualist legislators who are the instrument largely of their own ambitions; a set of party and legislative leaders with very little influence on anybody; and, mostly as a result of this institutional breakdown, a budget stalemate that has lasted long enough to become fodder for late-night television comedians.

It seems as if the gods have punished Connecticut for all those years of docility and all those decisions made in a mist of cigar smoke. But is it only Connecticut? Or has the same erosion of authority been been going on all around us?

William Donald Schaefer would probably say it has. Nothing he learned in Baltimore politics, nothing that happened to him during 16 years as tough, decisive mayor, none of that prepared him for what he has confronted in Annapolis in his current term: a legislature that has treated him largely as an irrelevance and has ignored most of his legislative ideas, notably the tax reform scheme in whose success he seemed to invest so much of his ego.

Tom Foley might make the same point. True enough, speakers of the U.S. House have been complaining for years that the job doesn't carry the authority it did in Sam Rayburn's day; Rayburn looked back nostalgically at the power that had been lost since Joe Cannon's day. As far back as most senior Congressmen can remember, speakers have found their authority challenged by committee chairmen on the one hand and restive junior members on the other.

But it was Mr. Foley's fate this summer to see his authority attacked from both directions at once. Committee chairmen ran wild on him and wrote a highway bill so full of pork barrel projects for favored districts that it became a joke on the House floor. Then the junior members revolted and sent it down to defeat. A good public policy decision, no doubt. But a result that left the uncomfortable feeling that nobody at all was in charge of the institution.

Well, what about George Bush? Surely no problem of authority there. This is the president who went into Panama and scooped up Manuel Noriega, then humiliated the tyrant of Iraq. He had the decisiveness to act and the power to see his will enforced.

President Bush stands as a monument to leadership and to authority -- over other countries. He has yet to demonstrate much ability, or even much willingness, to exert authority in the country that elected him. That would require him to formulate a domestic policy and sell it to Congress. It would require him to acknowledge the seriousness of the deficit, propose some solutions and persuade the country to accept them. That would be authority.

The president has a luxury that Tom Foley and William Donald Schaefer don't have. He canshow decisiveness by sending troops to Third World countries. That doesn't make the absence of authority here at home any less real or any less troubling.


The simplest way to explain the erosion of authority in American politics is to say that the leaders aren't leading. But that is too simple. The truth is that leaders have to have followers. It is the supply of followers that has dwindled to an alarming degree.

Lowell Weicker knows this very well, or ought to. For 20 years he served in Congress as a renegade Republican, independent to the point of prickliness and unwilling to vote for anything just because someone in a position of authority told him to. He had made it to the Senate, after all, largely on his own. He didn't run for the office just to sit there and take direction.

Now, having shed his party label altogether and won the Connecticut governorship, he is trying to impose direction on a legislature that has too many people who behave the way he always did. For months, they have refused to pass any budget that includes an income tax, and he has refused to sign any budget without one. Thus the state has lived through a series of blown deadlines and government shutdowns that have made it a national symbol of political disorder.

The Connecticut legislature, like legislatures all over the country, is growing more like Congress. It is attracting people who have devoted their adult lives to politics, as campaign workers, aides, candidates and strategists. The word "legislator," for many of them, is more than a mere title. It is the nearest thing they have to a professional identity. The odds are they gave up their private careers to serve in office, if they had not already abandoned them when they started campaigning.

It is not logical to expect these people to show up for the first day of legislative service and ask where they can get their orders. They want to make their own decisions. They do not need the legislative or party leadership for renomination, and they do not need it for patronage, because they do not care much about patronage. The one thing they can be counted on to do is challenge any order that requires them to cast a vote that might bring their carefully nurtured careers to a premature end.

They are not the politicians of John Bailey's day. Forty years ago the Democrats of the Connecticut House managed to get through an entire year's session without one of them casting a single vote contrary to the chairman's wishes. A few years later, when Mr. Bailey tried to absent himself from the Capitol on an important bill because the governor asked him to -- he wasn't a member anyway -- the Democratic state senators refused even to meet in his absence.


We have a word for legislators like that -- we call them hacks. They are alien to the politics of the 1990s and alien to our modern notion of what a politician is supposed to be. We find it hard even to entertain the idea of an elected official mindlessly followed the commands of an unelected boss.

It would be foolish to argue that all we need to save our political institutions in America is the return of the ignorant, obedient time-server. I'm not arguing that. I do think it's important to recognize that if we have a crisis of authority in politics, it doesn't result entirely from the absence of people willing to lead. It also reflects the disappearance of people who see it as their business to follow.

In that respect, it isn't a problem confined within the political system. It is a condition that should be familiar not only to governors and House speakers but to parents, teachers, judges -- anybody whose business it is to persuade people to say "yes" to things, and who find that task of persuasion very difficult. In its profusion of independent voices and its reluctance to take short-term risks for the long-term good, we have a politics that reflects the broader society -- all too well.

Alan Ehrenhalt is executive editor of Governing magazine and the author of "The United States of Ambition: Politicians, Power and the Pursuit of Office."