David Broder, Political Analyst and Pulitzer Prize Winner
December 9, 1977
Politics in the Carter Era
Governor Landon, may I say to you here what I said to you backstage, that while I have had the opportunity to shake your hand only once before, the letters that you have written me over the years when something that I had written came to your attention have been the source, I think, of as much pleasure and pride for me as a journalist as anything that has come my way. I am honored deeply, sir, to be here as a participant in this lecture series that bears your distinguished name.
What I want to try to do in these formal remarks is to relate the Carter presidency, at least as much of it as we've had a chance to see so far, to some of the broader themes and more basic trends in our politics, in our country, and to some extent even in the world.
This is a risk, because I think the hardest thing journalists do is to step back far enough from the day-to-day events which are the grist for our mill to get perspective on some of these long range trends. So there are no guarantees at all that go with this analysis.
The proposition that I would like to examine with you, is this: I think that it is possible to describe much of what has been happening in the Carter presidency as the product of his efforts to cope with three sets of opposing forces that operate in the contemporary world. Each of them, interestingly, was important to Carter's election and each now poses serious problems for his performance as president.
By examining these three sets of opposing forces, I hope that we may gain a few insights not just about the character of this president and this presidency, but about this time in American politics.
The first set of forces that I think we have to try to describe and analyze are those that we shorthand in journalism very conveniently and very inaccurately when we talk about conservatism and liberalism/As Governor Landon, I hope, will not be displeased to hear, even the Washington Post and its political reporter have come to understand in recent years that the basic political trend in this country has been in the conservative direction. I think that trend is traceable back almost with an unbroken line to the mid term election of 1966. That was, for some of you younger people in the audience, not really a referendum on Vietnam, although it has often been described in those terms. It was the public reaction to the great rush of legislative activity which President Johnson pushed through the Congress after the 1964 landslide the creation in rapid fire order of the major elements of what he called "The Great Society."
The message that the voters were delivering in that mid term election, when they gave the Republicans their biggest victory in a congressional election in a very long time, was that they felt that process had gone far enough, fast enough. They were about choked on the amount of new social legislation increasing the size of government, that had been passed in very rapid order.
From 1966 on, probably the most significant development in our internal politics, it seems to me, has been the embedding of inflation as the major concern of the American people. There have been some variations in the polls; there have been times when the Vietnam war displaced inflation as the major concern; there have been times when unemployment has come close to rivaling it as a concern. But even in the depths of the last recession more people said they were worried about inflation than said that they were worried about unemployment.
Along with that change has come a growing belief, as measured by the polls and as measured by everything that I can see in American politics, a growing belief that the root cause of inflation in our society is not the greediness of big business, or the insatiability of the demands of big labor. Rather, people have come to identify inflation as being caused principally by excessive spending on the part of the federal government.
Now, how does this relate to Jimmy Carter? I think, the growing conservative political atmosphere in this country was more easily realized by Democratic politicians operating outside of Washington than by the Congressional Democrats who make Washington their home.
In a long career of serious political misjudgments one of the few recent things that I can look back on and say, "Well, for once you were on target, Broder," was an article that I wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in the spring of 1974 about the condition of the Democratic party. In it I said that the strongest prospects among the Democrats' presidential possibilities, in terms of electability, although at the time not the likeliest to be nominated, were their southern governors.
And I mentioned specifically Reubin Askew of Florida, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, and Jimmy Carter of Georgia. I said those men in their states had had to learn something which few of the northern liberal presidential hopefuls in Congress had had to learn namely, how to develop public support for progressive policies in an essentially conservative political climate.
Carter, who was the only one of the three who took the chance on running for the presidency, exploited that insight, and exploited it very effectively, particularly in the primaries against other Democrats. He ran as a more conservative Democrat in the primaries than most of his opponents George Wallace probably being the major exception to that. I don't want to minimize the importance of the tactical skill, the timing, the concentration of resources, that was part of it. But I think essentially what underlay the Carter victories in the spring of last year was his realization that there was a growing constituency, even within the Democratic party, for a more conservative approach to fiscal and economic policy. He kept almost all the other liberal candidates out and had George Wallace almost to himself except in Florida. In the key victories that marked Carter's path to the nomination New Hampshire, Illinois, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, his vote came from the conservative side of the party. It came from the small towns and the rural areas, including traditionally Republican areas. It did not come from the big cities which had been the traditional base of Democratic presidential candidates and presidential victories.
On the other hand, and this is where the opposing force comes in, once Jimmy Carter became the nominee of the Democratic party, opposing Gerald Ford, he had to come to terms with other constituencies and other forces. Organized labor, the teachers, minorities, big city mayors, the activists of the consumer movement, and the environmental movement, all raised their issues and their demands with this man who was going to be the nominee of their party. They raised issues that were on their agenda and, if you will, I think you can think about those issues as being the leftovers from the New Deal Great Society agenda.
The most important of those are: civil rights, which in our times has been translated into a question of affirmative action; the issue of welfare and income support; the issue of national health insurance; the issue of pollution; the issue of consumer protection; and concentrating all of these in one place, the question of the future of the old central cities with their decaying housing and fiscal structure.
Carter had to recognize those forces and he began to give them acknowledgment. The first sign that he knew of their power and potency was in his choice of the vice presidential candidate, Walter Mondale, who was probably the favorite of those traditionally liberal forces inside the Democratic party. But if you remember also in the period right after the the convention, he made a number of visits and speeches to union conventions; he held a well-publicized meeting with Ralph Nader, and took other actions symbolizing his sympathy to the liberal agenda.
The man who had in his earlier primaries been opposed to a federal bail out of New York City, reluctant to endorse the Humphrey-Hawkins Bill, opposed to federal control of natural gas prices, reversed and revised his positions or modified them substantially on all those issues.
And immediately in the Carter entourage you began to see the tension that was going to result from that. Rosalynn Carter, then as always a terribly important force in her husband's political career and political views, said to him very bluntly, "You have forgotten why people voted for you in the primaries. They weren't voting for you as the traditional Democratic advocate of all of those big federal programs. They were voting for you because you were more conservative than those other Democrats."
But Jimmy Carter knew that if he was going to be elected against an incumbent Republican president, he had to appeal to those core Democratic constituents. As Pat Caudell, his pollster, said in his post-election memo, Carter won essentially because he was able, in a policy of deliberate ambiguity, to get southerners to vote for him as a southerner and northerners to vote for him as a Democrat.
Jimmy Carter defeated Gerry Ford, I think in large part, because he won the unemployed and those concerned about the unemployed, who believed that he would do more on that problem; because the blacks believed that he would do more on the issues of welfare and poverty and education and the plight of the cities; and because those big city mayors, some of whom remembered that famous headline in the New York Daily News which ascribed incorrectly to Ford the view "Drop Dead, New York," came to Carter's aid. The cities, which had not supported Carter in the primaries, New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and the rest came through for him in the general election.
The tension that was visible in that period before the general election has not dissipated since he became president. It is there today. It is there acutely today in the current struggles between the demands from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Housing and Urban Development, and others, for expanded social programs, against the efforts of the president and the Office of Management and Budget to exert budget discipline.
The clearest way you can express that tension is this: if Jimmy Carter succumbs and allows the kind of increase in federal spending that his domestic department chiefs are pushing for and the result of that excessive spending is a return to severe inflation, double digit inflation in this country, then his own political advisers believe that he has sealed his defeat in the 1980 election.
On the other hand, to the extent that he denies those constituencies and governs in terms of what he assumes to be the general conservative mood of the country; to the extent that he alienates labor, the teachers, the blacks, the mayors, the environmentalists, the consumer advocates, he guarantees himself a serious challenge for renomination from the "Candidate of the Left" in the Democratic party. So that is one tension that I think operates within this administration.
The second that I would mention is the tension between the forces of centralization in our government and decentralization. Here it seems to me we are dealing with one of the major shifts that has taken place in American society and American politics in recent years. For years, from the time of the New Deal through the time of the Great Society, there was a prescribed pattern to national politics. When the Democrats in power discovered that there was a problem out there in the country, they invented a program in Washington to deal with that problem and they created an agency in Washington to administer that program. The beneficiaries of that program then became the clientele of that agency, and the political supporters of the party and government that brought that program and agency into existence. This was the characteristic pattern of Democratic administrations from Franklin Roosevelt through Lyndon Johnson. I have to say that I think it was not a bad thing for this country, because it did deal to some extent with some real problems that were there in our society. But it is now the victim of its own success.
As Americans have become more affluent, and particularly as Americans have become more educated, we have reached the point where most of us are no longer satisfied to be part of a client-patron relationship with our government. We have a citizenry now that wants to have a very direct and immediate sense that they have a voice themselves in those decisions that affect the quality of their own lives. Particularly, they want to have a direct voice in those institutions which make a major difference in the quality of their own neighborhoods and communities, schools, police; all of the factors that make a difference as to whether you live comfortably, safely, and securely in your own community.
Republicans recognized, I think, this secular change in our society. They had no doctrinal difficulties in accepting it because they had been skeptics and critics of big federal government for a very long time. With Richard Nixon they began a program called New Federalism. The landmark, perhaps the only major achievement of that program, was the general revenue sharing program. It was a first step in redirecting resources and control away from Washington and back to states and local communities. It was not a full and evolved theory of devolution in the Nixon administration. I don't think they had worked out even theoretically the question of which functions ought to remain in Washington and which ought to be turned over to the states and which ought to be turned back to local communities. But they started in this direction.
Now once again, one finds an interesting and a direct connection with Jimmy Carter. He was one of the few Democrats who engaged himself seriously in the debate about general revenue sharing, and the rest of the New Federalism program. He was a critic of much of what the Nixon administration was attempting to do, but he did not share the point of view of those Congressional Democrats who said, "It is wrong to take any of this power away from Washington." On the contrary, Charlie Kirbo, one of Carter's closest friends, one of his few friends of his own age, once said to a group of us, "It's important to remember when you're talking about this president, this man, that the most frustrating experiences of his adult life did not come in his dealings with the big banks or the big businesses. They came in his dealings with big federal government, looking at it from the perspective of a local official, a state senator, a governor. Carter was interested in effective moves to decentralize power in this country and his criticism of the Nixon program was not that it was headed in the wrong direction, but that it was not traveling the right path at the right rate of speed. He recognized, as very few Democrats operating in Washington did recognize, the extent of the public disillusionment with that big federal bureaucracy. And again if I may quote Pat Caudell's studies in his postelection memo, he said that the single issue which most clearly identified and distinguished Carter from the other candidates in 1976 and which contributed significantly to his victory was his pledge to reorganize and reduce what he always called the "bloated federal bureaucracy."
Along with that was a pledge that he would make that a matter of high priority by becoming a domestic president. As you remember he said, "I do not plan to travel overseas in my first year as president." He said he thought the problems that we have to deal with are the problems here at home and many of those problems are right here in Washington, where we have a government structure which interferes with the efficient operation of our private economy and our private society.
There is in this case as in the other, however, an opposing and countervailing force at work. It is a force that is increasingly making it impossible for a president, or anyone else, to distinguish and to maintain a sharp line of demarcation between domestic and foreign policy. Because there can be no such distinction made, there is an inevitable tendency to push, not for decentralization of power, not for tearing down the federal bureaucracy, but for more centralized government and increased bureaucracy.
In the past when we talked about the foreign involvements of the United States, what we tended to think of were principally the issues of war and peace and national defense. When Franklin Roosevelt moved from being Dr. New Deal to Dr. Win the War, we understood that there was a clear shift from a domestic to an international priority. But as you know, defense spending has been shrinking as a percentage of the gross national product and as a share of the federal budget, and the concern with issues of war and peace as measured by public opinion polls has been diminishing as a factor in the psychology and thinking of American voters. What is now pulling us and pulling us strongly into the international orbit are not defense issues but economic issues. And the reason that is happening, of course, is that with every passing day, this world becomes more interdependent as an economic unit. It is increasingly difficult for a president to be domestic, because almost every domestic issue that he wants to tackle turns out to have important international dimensions. It is significant as a sign of this that the first Carter trip abroad, the one on which he broke his promise, was to what an international economic summit in London. The growth of the US economy, which has to be his major concern, is tied ineluctably to the decisions that are being made in Germany and in Japan. If there is unemployment in the steel mills in Youngstown, the answer has to be sought where in Tokyo, in Bonn, in Cologne. What is true of steel is equally true of agriculture and what is true of industry and agriculture is also true of the consumer's worry about inflation. The pattern of international trade, the availability of goods in the international market has a major effect on consumer prices. And of course and most obviously, it is true of the issue that has been given top priority by this president, the issue of energy.
What we are seeing here is the internationalization of what we used to think of as domestic problems. And as an iron law, when domestic problems become internationalized, it produces an inevitable effect of bringing those issues to the national government, expanding the power, the responsibility, the scope, and the bureaucracy in the national government. Thus this president, who had as his central pledge an effort to reduce the size and the complexity of the national government, has, as the landmark achievement of his first year what the addition and creation of a brand new cabinet level, department of energy, whose size is larger initially than that of five of the old cabinet departments. Does it mean that he is dishonest? No, it means in my judgment that he is pressured by forces that are operating beyond his own control.
It has also produced a clear shift in his priorities. He is not a domestic president. He is as much of an international president, in terms of his focus and his use of time, as any of his predecessors. A president has only a limited time available. Time that is spent worrying about the Middle East or worrying about Japanese trade policies is not spent reorganizing the federal government. And just as Richard Nixon found China more compelling than the passage of General Revenue Sharing, so Jimmy Carter finds his international issues more compelling than reorganizing federal agencies.
The third set of tensions, and the last, deals with what I would call the pattern of entrepreneurial politics, individualized politics, versus the need for coordinated national policy. I have written and talked about it so much in recent years that I don't want to spell it out in great detail for you here. I don't think it's necessary. But clearly, one of the major trends of the last 25 years in American politics has been the decline of the political party as a basic institution for working through conflicts in our society. The root causes of that decline are many and fundamental. They range from the development of television as the principal means of mass communication to the decline of patronage, and the rise of civil service, as well as some historical accidents, such as Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson and a few other people, each of whom made his own contribution to the decline of the role of the political party.
Suffice it to say that without the weakening of the political party, Jimmy Carter could never have become the nominee of the Democratic party. He was certainly not the choice of those who traditionally, in the past, had controlled Democratic party nominations. He was not familiar to, and certainly not originally, very sympathetic to major labor leaders. He was an unknown to members of Congress, to the intellectual community. And as for his position with his peers, I suppose one of the great ironies is that a man who could not have been elected chairman of the National Governors' Conference was nonetheless the choice of the Democratic convention for President of the United States.
But those insiders no longer control the nominations of the political parties, because the political parties' structure has become so weakened and diffused that that kind of centralized control is no longer possible or even, as viewed by most people, desirable.
Carter was a true outsider, and like most modern presidents chosen under this system, he is surrounded by his own political aides on the White House staff, men who tend to see the answer to governmental problems in doing the same sort of thing that they did in the campaign.
What is the offsetting force in this case? It is that this kind of autonomous president, who got there on his own by running his own campaign for a very long time with his own staff, and who says proudly, "I owe the special interests nothing," now comes to occupy an office where the ability of a president to get things done on his own has been substantially reduced.
The presidency is in a weakened condition as an agency of national leadership today. It has been weakened by important historical events, by the Vietnam war, by Watergate. It has particularly been weakened in its relationship to Congress, because the response of the Congress to these calamities of Vietnam and Watergate, that have overtaken the president, has been to assert its own claim to power very aggressively against the president.
Congress has a role in foreign policy now, greater than it has had in the past. Congress has a role in domestic policy now, greater than it has had in the past. Congress, for the first time, has given itself an effective institutional mechanism through its own budget process to exert a greater power in budget and fiscal decisions than it has in the past. The personalities and force of character and force of will of key congressmen has been greater than that of recent presidents. A Tip O'Neill, a Bob Byrd, a Russell Long, do not regard themselves as being in any way constitutionally, institutionally, or politically in an inferior position to the president. What resources of leadership does the president have? Is he really the leader of the Democratic party? Is he able through his own alliances with leaders of business and labor and other interest groups to mobilize those forces on his behalf? No it is Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Plains, still very much out there on his own, coping with the world as best he can, with whatever help he can get from those young men who have been his associates in this long and lonely struggle to the top.
Most of the Democrats in the Congress of the United States had never served with a Democratic president until the moment, last January 20, when Jimmy Carter raised his hand and took the oath of office. All their experience, all their skills, had come in a time of political combat with Republican presidents. They gave themselves heavy weapons for that struggle. They learned to use them effectively and they did use them effectively to challenge the power of presidents. The fact that a new man moved into the White House with a D in back of his name, instead of an R did not change their inclination to exert that power to the full. What we have seen in this past year, in my judgment, is not a unique or unusual situation. It is probably a foretaste of American politics. With our weakened political party structure, with our autonomous but weakened president, it is now possible to have, literally, a situation in which you have an opposition Congress of the same party as the president.
Now what does all this mean? What I have been trying to say at greater length than was necessary, is that the dilemmas that President Carter faces in his term in office stem from some of the basic forces that are operating on the modern presidency and on the modern American society: pitting the demands of special constituencies for increased governmental assistance and increased governmental intervention against the general resistance of the public to further growth of governmental power; pitting the powerful anti-Washington decentralizing tendencies in the public against the need for central government management of international economic issues: pitting our entrepreneurial, individualistic politics against the need for a mechanism for greater sharing of power, particularly between the executive and legislative branches.
All of these forces, in my judgment, essentially are destabilizing forces in their impact on our politics and on our governmental system. I think they explain why it is so hard, not just for this president, but for modern presidents generally, to avoid frustration at the personal level, at their inability to move government policy in the direction that they want it to go, and, at the public level, to avoid a sense of public disillusionment and disappointment in their performance of office.