A Place for Cafe Refugees and Others Like Them

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.

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Comments on: "Will Rogers, President Carter, and Senator Reid" (18)

  1. another trope said:

    Thanks for this. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that collectively those on the left have a shaky knowledge of the history of the Democratic Party. I was only sixteen when Carter loss to Reagan and most of what I remember was my friend’s and my loathing of “raygun” who we all felt would have us being drafted into some war if not annihilating by getting us into some nuclear showdown with the Soviets.

    At the time I was unaware of the Kennedy Carter brewhaha, and since then have seen Kennedy portrayed as the villain, mainly for weakening Carter and helping lead to Reagan’s victory.

    I do totally agree with you about the coalition of ideologies that make up the Democratic Party of today, where those like Nelson and Lincoln made the idea of a majority an illusion.

    It has been frustrating for the Democrats to be whitewashed as incompetent because they can’t get everyone to act in lockstep. The only reason they have a majority is because there are many in the party who will never act in lockstep with the liberal wing of the party.

    • Thank you for this. I am certain that most of the people I commune with on these blogs, even those with who I argue about the need to stand behind the President whatever their disappointments might be, would have been four square behind Senator Kennedy’s campaign. In fact, having now read his sensational and inspirational autobiography, http://www.amazon.com/True-Compass-Edward-M-Kennedy/dp/0446539252/ref=sr_1_1?s=gateway&ie=UTF8&qid=1285440671&sr=8-1, I understand better his reluctance to enter the 1980 campaign with all of us screaming that he had to.

      It was hard thing to do and yet, the predecessors of the blogs we all read today (and, probably more importantly, organized labor) were almost apoplectic in demanding that he run. I had misgivings about it—mainly that fear of you know what—but it had to be done and last Sunday we were reminded why.

      He was all that was left after 1976, and, though Vice President Mondale, Governor Dukakis, Vice President Gore and Senator Kerry, in varying degrees started the march back to the party of Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, it was President Obama who succeeded (with the obvious help of President Bush).

      • another trope said:

        I think at this point we all need to decide, on an individual level, whether we want a party that is big tent or is aligned more closer to our ideals of the Roosevelt. The Republicans through their primaries have purified their party so they able to act when so motivated as one (that and the willingness to punish those who step out of line). Many have criticized them for these purity tests, but there is a part of me that thinks we would be better off we did it, too. Even if it meant becoming the minority for a little while.

        • I recall getting bashed around at TPM for feeling this way. I was told Dems are better off being the big tent party and that, being a former Republican, I’m wrong to expect them to be lock-step behind the President and Congress no matter what.

          Great comments, both of you, and Barth this is an excellent post. I learned a lot from it, and have gone back into my hazy memories of Carter’s administration with a new understanding of him. Thanks for this.

        • I am not for party “purification” but simply ask that people understand the price we pay for the “majority” we currently have in both houses of Congress.

          I did not like, nor do I like President Carter, but he certainly belonged in our party. (I did not agree much with Senator Henry Jackson either, but had no problem with him as a member of the party. Senator Richard Russell? Senator John Sparkman? Well, now we are getting to a trickier part.)

          I am afraid to be in the minority in Congress, frankly. The years wasted from 1994 until the end of the Clinton presidency, with baseless investigations and impeachment are part of what has set us so far back in dealing with the challenges of the new age we have entered.

          I cannot imagine a House led by John Boehner being good for the country.

          • another trope said:

            I tend to agree with about the purification but I think this facet of the de facto coalition (and the consequences that come from that) within the party is a concept that seems to be too sophisticated for the average American. So too often all hear is why couldn’t do this or that given their supermajority.

  2. another trope said:

    And I think I am like a lot of Democrats today who don’t know much about the Carter presidency. What we know is that he helps build houses for Habitat and stands up against Israel, along with his achievement in helping move that region closer towards peace. So I think it is great that you have helped fill in some of the blank spaces with your view on what transpired up to and during his administration, along with Carter’s views about government.

    And while the game today seems to be comparing Obama to Carter, I think Obama is much more like Kennedy in worldview. It was Obama’s statement early on (in the STOU addresss?) that it isn’t about no bigger or smaller government but the right size of government that reaffirmed I made the right choice. I didn’t know that he was channeling Kennedy.

  3. BTW: this is the best of the “post TPM” sites, so far.

  4. I always thought that Carter was naive and a bit too conciliatory. Clinton a died in the wool neocon.

    However it seems to be fashionable to hold Democrats up to the Roosevelt Administration and it’s policies. Which if your were white, was great. But for minorities, especially Blacks and Japanese and Latinos…..not so much.

    • No, no. I don’t agree there either. Yes, it was before the civil rights movement and, yes, that meant that there were too many second class semi-citizens, but, if you ask minority people who were there then (not me, I wasn’t) the rising tide lifted their boats as well. Not to the degree that it should have; not to the same degree as others, but the power of the New Deal moved millions of black people, historically Republican (to the extent that they were allowed to vote, meaning in the north only) for the reasons discussed in the main post, into the Democratic Party where they quite clearly reside today.

      The reason it is unfair to hold the current administration to that of the New Deal is that the majority that President Roosevelt had far exceeds that which exists today, the “solid south” although it tried to put monkey wrenches in many parts of FDR’s program—forcing him to try to run other candidates against some of them (bad, if uplifting, idea)— could not make the dent it makes now that they are in the other party and there was a degree of responsibility, civility and collegiality in the Congress that is long gone today.

  5. I posted the following comment in response to your post at TPMAHOLICS a few minutes ago, but is seems to fit this discussion as well.

    Interesting review of history, but there is one important element in the 1980 election that you left out, that being the factor of an independent candidate in the person of John Anderson. Although there is no real way to prove it, I am convinced that his candidacy more than anything else led to Reagan’s election. I recall my own disillusionment with Carter in 1980 that led to voting for John Anderson. From the distance of three decades later, it is clear that “purist” vote (along with about 7% of the voters that year) for the former Rockefeller Republican who had moved too far left for his party ultimately lead to far more misery for the country than ever could have been predicted. I doubt very much without Anderson in the race that Reagan would have received many, if any of those votes. That is why I will never again vote for a third party candidate who has no chance of winning it all, no matter how unhappy I am with the Democratic party choice. We have 2000 as the most recent example. Without Nader in 2000, Gore would have won more than the popular vote and we would be involved in two less wars, etc. Elections have a way of delivering sobering consequences.

    • Excellent comment, intp, and it’s so good to see you here.

      Back when I was a Republican, I became very disenchanted with George Bush but I didn’t care for Clinton, so I decided to vote for Perot. Except he didn’t even stick it out to the elections, if I remember correctly. Didn’t he back out due to the complications his campaign were causing his family? My memory is a bit fuzzy. But anyway, even if he had made it to the elections I would’ve been one of few people voting for him, and it wouldn’t have mattered in the end.

    • I was very impressed with John Anderson. I think he would have been a far better choice than Carter and of course Reagan.

  6. Hence we return to the same debate as always. The question was never whether Congressman Anderson was better suited for the presidency than President Carter or the Great Reagan, any more than the question during that primary season was whether Senator Harris was a better candidate than, say, Congressman Udall, or during the last one whether Senator Edwards (cough, cough) was better than the President we eventually elected.

    The idea is which candidate can win. I did not vote for Congressman Anderson for many reasons but one was that I wanted my state’s electoral votes to go to President Carter and not the Great Reagan. There was no chance that Congressman Anderson would win my state (NY) and, since he won it in 1984, every chance that President Reagan could win it in 1980.

    This is not an exercise in nostalgia. It is a rehash of the purity has no business in elections argument that I really want to win. In 2008, I tried to make the case here: http://www.dailykos.com/storyonly/2008/5/3/508298/-One-foot-off-the-bus The continued vitality of the I vote for the person who would make the best president meme drives me to distraction, frankly. (I keep seeing the grinning face of President Bush, elected, if at all, because people decided they should vote for Ralph Nader rather than Vice President Gore.)

    That said, I do not think President Carter would have been re-elected without Congr Anderson on the ballot, nor do I think Senator Kennedy’s primary campaign against a president who never left the White House anyway because of something he was doing to get the hostages back, had anything to do with his loss.

    He was seen to be ineffective; unfairly in many respects, to be sure, but a hard president to defend too strenuously. Maybe you had to be there then, but I do not know a single northern Democrat who felt all that good getting up to go vote on election day, 1980.

  7. I voted for Carter twice. The election of Carter ended the New Deal political period. Carter was the first president of the conservative period. The election of Obama has ended the conservative politics defined by Regan. That has run it coarse and now is going out kicking and screaming like a lunatic. What will emerge from this has yet to be defined. Obama has his hands full hearding the congress in the right direction to end the depression.

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