When President Carter returned from his well earned obscurity to again ruin my weekend, a blog post to that effect resulted in some bewilderment about why an argument from 1980 should be so important today. To me, and I think to others who remember those days, what this twerp, who I voted for twice (holding my nose the second time) said about one legislative battle over health care insurance said so much about today, and why things seem so bleak, that a fuller explanation seemed to be required for those who think that if only Senator Reid would allow the Senate to vote on the extension of the tax cuts enacted at the insistence of President G W Bush, things would be different.
This is that explanation, but it requires a quick, fractured review of history which, hope spring eternal, will at least hold the attention of a dozen people:
It is considered one big yuck from the black and white thirties: Will Rogers’ famous remark about not belonging to an organized political party, but when he said it shortly before he was killed in an airplane crash in 1935, the Democratic Party to which he belonged had truly become two separate factions, bound together for electoral purposes, but hardly by philosophy. There was the newer factions, New Dealers who were remaking the country and the party as the country veered from the edges of revolution to recovery from a global depression that had thrown Europe into turmoil.
Then there was the historic Democratic Party: the remnants of the southern opposition to Lincoln’s determination to keep the country together even if it meant the end of slavery and the party that was able to replace “reconstruction” with “Jim Crow” so as to maintain as much of what was described benignly as a “southern way of life” as was possible even after the forced labor which made that possible was nominally ended.
This “marriage of convenience” was on the path to destruction when the New Deal it made possible began to change the relationship of the federal government to the people who needed its help. President Roosevelt knew this: at the first opportunity he forced a change in how the party nominated its presidential candidates to rid it of the 2/3rds rule which essentially gave the southern “Democrats” veto power of the nominee since nobody could win until at least some southern states agreed.
The final end came, of course, after the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts in 1965 and 1966. As President Johnson famously told Bill Moyers those pieces of legislation would finally cost the party the south, but since the “Dixiecrats” nominated Strom Thurmond for president in 1948 after a civil rights plank was adopted in the Democratic Party platform was adopted, the die had been permanently cast.
What made a person “progressive” or “liberal” has, since that time meant two quite different things. In much of the country, liberal thought (and the Democratic majority) was an outgrowth of the New Deal’s commitment to making the lives of those who live here to be better. It meant, in the most general terms, that the government would spend what it took to help those who could not help themselves.
In the south, though, a person who opposed segregation, or someone who thought that Negroes, as they were called, had rights, too and that, indeed, all were created equal was “a liberal.” That’s what it took. Without demeaning the courage it took to take such a position in the south, that was the test for southern Democrats. President Roosevelt’s social safety net was not.
The loss of the south happened relatively quickly. The evil Nixon used it to narrowly defeat Vice President Humphrey in 1968 but by 1972 the Democratic Party was a quite different thing than it had been until then. By then, many former Democrats, such as the Texas Governor shot while sitting by President Kennedy on that horrible day in 1963, had become Republicans by then and others, while still calling themselves Democrats were heading for the exits and calling themselves “boll weevils” in the meantime.
What was left of the party—a far more liberal party than it had been when it was attached to the south—nominated the antiwar Senator George S. McGovern of South Dakota to run against Nixon in 1972 but the party was in a shambles, Nixon’s Watergate henchmen were disrupting the process and the social turmoil centered around the Vietnam War and Nixon’s desire to use those divisions for his electoral advantage, led to a huge loss.
Thus it became an axiom of the “new” Democratic Party that it would never win another election if the New Dealers were allowed to continue to represent what it stood for. That the Democratic majorities in Congress from 1933 until then, with only a brief exception, were the result of the New Deal (coupled with the southern votes, to be sure) seemed pointless, we were told. That was then and this is now. The usual stuff.
By 1976, Watergate and President Ford‘s subsequent pardoning of his corrupt predecessor
made it likely that a Democrat would be elected president. Some of us saw this as an opportunity to get back on the track from which we were taken by the Vietnam War, and to bring the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier and Great Society into the 1970s by the election of a “classic” Democrat: My candidate was Congressman Mo Udall of Arizona; others favored Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana (an actual Democrat, quite unlike his son, Evan). Either would have represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” though I suspect if DailyKos existed then, Senator Bayh would have been eviscerated in those pages lest he get in the way of Congressman Udall.
Instead, though, President Carter was nominated and elected. He was a Democrat, but not the kind our party elected since 1932. He came from a different world, and believed (as he apparently still does) that his moral beliefs and way of thinking were superior to the majority of his party which still saw government’s responsibility to those who needed its help as its true mandate.
We tried to get along. We agreed to pronounce his wife’s name as “Rose-a-lynn” and his advisor’s name as “Jerdan” and we tried to ignore Bert Lance and wonder whether the holier than thou president we elected did not surround himself whith quite as many angels as he claimed he had. We really tried to accept him as if he and we were in the same party.
Given President Carter’s worldview, though, he flinted with a Congress controlled by the classic Democratic Party, though the party itself was also having to adjust to a new geographical center. He fought the party’s congressional leaders, particularly Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill, a hard core New Dealer who held the House seat once occupied by President Kennedy.
His sense of his own superiority and different views about the party which nominated him made his tenure quite rocky. As 1980 approached, most Democrats outside the south had given up on him a view exacerbated first by polling which showed his re-election prospects to be dubious and then by both the capture and failed rescue of United States diplomats in Iran. (I will spare you the recitation of how the President contributed to that crisis, and how his foolish reaction to the Soviet Union’s actions in Afghanistan made it very hard to support his re-election in any event).
The health care debate to which he absurdly made mention in 60 Minutes last Sunday came in this period. I will not rehash the whole thing now, and, instead, point you to Senator Kennedy’s point person on the issue in 1980, Dr. Lawrence Horowitz and a somewhat muddled article from something called the History News Network as well as a contemporaneous Newsweek article from the time.
President Carter can congratulate himself for his remarkable candor in what he says were diaries he wrote back then, but he chose to publish them only after Senator Kennedy was no longer around to speak for himself. The view of many of us then, and me, today, was that as the Iranian hostage crisis was starting to weigh him down, the President wanted to make sure that Senator Kennedy won no legislative victories and found his own way to torpedo the health care bill by proposals that the traditional New Deal Democrats were bound to hate. What he proposed was a mess that could neither have been enacted nor have any impact and he knew it then and knows it today.
That was, though, the last straw in the struggle for control of the party. The issue was not, as people who don’t remember or weren’t there, about Senator Kennedy himself, Chappaquidick, a family empire, whether he was faithful to his wife, while President Carter was teaching Sunday school: the issue was what the party stood for.
Senator Kennedy’s famous speech at the convention that year said it all.
We cheered, but we lost. President Carter was renominated but he had no chance to be re-elected. The Great Reagan was and announced that government was no longer the answer but the problem. The next time we elected a so-called Democrat, it was another southerner, who tried to tell us the era of big government was over.
President Carter lost for many reasons, but one was that you cannot beat Republicans by pretending to be one or siding with them. They will always prefer a real one to one who simply agrees with them.
But what President Carter’s whining his way to the presidency and then whining his way out of it, and his continued whining today (yes, he has done a few good things in and out of office and he correctly forecast the need to get off foreign oil) and Senator McGovern’s Watergate-infected loss told the party leadership was to try to avoid controversy.
The worst president since Buchanan (if not the most corrupt, a tile permanently in the hands of Nixon) made possible the election of the first New Deal Democrat since President Johnson remains an amorphous mess: it includes for some reason, Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and Joseph Lieberman (at least in a way). If the south has, for the most part, abandoned it, there remains a wide view of opinions in a party that is all there is between us and more control by the party of nutcakes, screwballs, bigots and the defenders of all that the wealthy want.
That is why the Senate could not vote on the easiest issue to come to its halls in years. It involves the word “taxes” and in the big tent we have are many, many people, and members of the Senate, who believe that a vote against any tax cut, even one for the wealthiest among us, is the kiss of electoral death. The majority we think we have does not exist, and if there is a nominal one after these elections, it will be even smaller than the one we have today.
In the meantime, it is not President Carter but Senator Kennedy whose voice talks to the issues of today:
The commitment I seek is not to outworn views but to old values that will never wear out. Programs may sometimes become obsolete, but the ideal of fairness always endures. Circumstances may change, but the work of compassion must continue. It is surely correct that we cannot solve problems by throwing money at them, but it is also correct that we dare not throw out our national problems onto a scrap heap of inattention and indifference. The poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs. The middle class may be angry, but they have not lost the dream that all Americans can advance together.
The demand of our people in 1980 is not for smaller government or bigger government but for better government.
I thank President Carter for reminding me that whether I voted for him or not, he never led any party to which I belong.