Before the election, my colleague Rick Perlstein counseled the next president to embrace a big and bold liberal agenda immediately after entering office, in the mold of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, or else the opportunity for real change would be lost.
But Rick also recognized success is not just as simple as proposing big ideas. It’s also navigating the inevitable attempts from conservative obstruction. He pointed to the cautionary tale of President Jimmy Carter.
Early in his administration, Carter’s approval was soaring and he got a bold clean energy bill passed in the House.
But then Carter got derailed by a conservative campaign to sensationalize a non-scandal involving his budget director:
Sloppy record-keeping and the sort of petty favoritism endemic to provincial banking had brought Carter’s close friend and budget director Bert Lance, a former banker in Georgia, before a Senate subcommittee for minor questioning. [Former Nixon aide and New York Times columnist William] Safire raised a series of where-there’s-smoke-there-must-be-fire insinuations. He hinted that the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund (which “the Labor Department says corruptly bankrolls Las Vegas mobsters,” Safire helpfully reminded readers) played a role, along with, of course, the Chicago Democratic Machine — and Arabs!
Safire penned eight Lance columns over the next four months, sometimes twice a week. He repeated the original charges, dropping ones others debunked, ever implying that the charges he still mentioned were the only ones he had made all along, counting on the public’s short memory to cover the fact that his original case was falling apart. Most often, his columns baited reporters: Why were they “refusing” to investigate Lance like they had hounded past Republicans? More cunningly, Safire larded the columns with less-than-subliminal linguistic references to Watergate. “Lancegate,” he implied, was exactly the same. He even declared a memo by the Manufacturers of Hanover Trust was “the ‘smoking gun.'” (Readers were counted on to vaguely recall that the “smoking gun” tape that had brought down Nixon two years earlier also involved the derailing of an FBI investigation.)
It worked, at least where it counted: in the court of political cartoons. Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herblock gave Carter a “Checkers Award,” after the infamous cocker spaniel Richard Nixon used to save his hide in a famous 1952 speech. Syndicated cartoonist Pat Oliphant went with a more straightforward depiction of Carter as Nixon: “Stonewall it. … They’re out to get us.” Lance resigned; the Justice Department handed down indictments. Even though Lance was eventually completely exonerated, the damage was done. Carter, like Obama, had run as a “different kind of Democrat” — pure, unsullied. So saboteurs like Safire had a clear challenge: “prove” that Carter was just another impure politician, if even on the shakiest of pretexts.
After Carter was knocked down several pegs, his energy bill died, and window of opportunity for bold progressive change was slammed shut.
That, of course, is what the right will try on the next Democratic president. They will take the possibility that Obama might break through the icy seas of conservative stasis and try to render it an absurdity. There is now an army of Safires and a Republican Party full of Senator No’s. Recall William Kristol’s famous memo enjoining congressional Republicans to refuse to deal with President Clinton’s proposed health-care reforms. “The plan should not be amended,” he wrote, “it should be erased.” The right might not be at its strongest, but it certainly understands that the American system favors fell swoops, on offense as well as on defense. The system provides conservatives with opportunities for obstruction in profusion — no matter how low their approval ratings.
And so it is this month. President Obama started off with a big and bold economic recovery bill, and quickly got it passed in the House.
But this week so far, media coverage has been dominated with ginned up hysteria over tax mistakes already rectified, and phony claims of “pork” in the economic recovery bill — all aiming to paint the new White House as hypocritical old politics.
Are we learning the lesson from the Carter administration? Are we keeping our eye on the ball? Or are we falling into the same traps?
Did we consider it more important to save the nomination of Tom Daschle, who was picked specifically so he could navigate universal health care through his former Senate home? Or did we go holier-than-thou over relatively minor matters, doing the conservatives’ job for them?
Are we flooding Congress with phone calls (Call 1-866-544-7573 NOW!) to keep President Obama’s economic recovery bill big and bold? Or are we overly focused with perfection, letting conservatives, despite their diminishing numbers, dominate the phone lines?
We have not lost this progressive moment. Yet.
Prospects for the bill still look good. But we don’t want to drag it across the finish line. We want to win strong so we’ll have to momentum to build on the victory, because there is a ton of work left to do on global warming, health care, workplace rights and infrastructure.
Achieving those bold legislative goals are what’s most important right now. If we allow ourselves to get distracted by the daily “nontroversies”, and take our eyes of the bill, this progressive window of opportunity will slam shut on our fingers.