Column No. 229
Jimmy Carter was in the post-Watergate, post-Viet Nam flush of Democratic victory. For the 1976 Presidential election, it had not been for Chappaquiddick, Sen. Ted Kennedy would likely have been the Democratic Party’s nominee (if he had not already been such in 1972).
If it had not been for his bladder cancer, Sen. Hubert Humphrey might well have overtaken Carter in the later primaries. But Kennedy had Chappaquiddick and Humphrey had cancer and the Democrats had no one but a highly inexperienced, very nice, one-term governor of Georgia (the last Democrat to hold that position, I believe). Nevertheless, the Democrats were riding high. The Nixon dragon had finally been slain. The foreign policy front was relatively quiet, funnily enough due in major part to Nixon. Kissinger’s détente with the Soviet Union was in place. Nixon/Kissinger had opened the door to China. Israel had conquered huge territories in the Six-Day and Yom Kippur Wars, but had not yet begun their policy of gradual annexation of the West Bank.
On the domestic side, again funnily enough, Nixon had actually instituted several very important environmental programs. If it had not been for Watergate, he would very likely have gained the passage of the fairly strong national health insurance program that he had introduced to Congress in the spring of 1973. In this context, Carter was in a position to focus on domestic policy, actually building further on Nixon initiatives in that realm. As a matter of fact I heard Carter, in a speech to the 1976 Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association, pledge that he would introduce and win passage of a national health insurance program. Well, Carter never quite got round to doing that. Nor, with the top of his staff drawn mainly from his Georgia Governor’s office (!!), did he do much else. Jimmy Carter is remembered for two things: the Camp David Accords and the Tehran Hostage Crisis. Why?
Primarily because, unlike Republicans when they are in office, Carter chose to try to work with the other side, even though he had majorities in both Houses of Congress. On the domestic side, Nixon’s positive initiatives or no, the GOP was able to bog down any major actions that Carter wanted to undertake. The Goldwater-Reagan right-wing of the party was moving into various positions of power both inside and outside of Washington. Carter did not get along well with the Kennedy/McGovern liberal wing of his own party and was never able to put together a team to get Democratic things done. Furthermore, he was saddled with the inflationary spiral that had begun under Nixon-Ford but which soon came to bear his name. (See any similarities there?) He was able to pull off the Camp David Accords because for different reasons both Israel and Egypt needed to quiet things down. And then came the Hostage Crisis.
Why did that happen? Simple. Carter did not know who his friends were and who his enemies were. On the second most important foreign policy decision of his Presidency, he listened to Republicans, to whom he did not have to listen, with disastrous results. There was a pro-western, secular overthrow of the Shah in 1978. There was a strong Islamist movement lead by the Ayatollah Khomeini, but it was by no means a sure thing that it would eventually take power. The Shah went into exile in 1979, ill with cancer. Kissinger and David Rockefeller, among other top Republicans, pleaded with Carter to admit the Shah to the US for treatment. The US Embassy in Tehran warned his very strongly against doing that, predicting several different very negative outcomes, including something like the one that actually happened. Carter gave in to the Republicans and the outcomes of the resultant Islamist takeover have reverberated negatively both for the Iranian people and of ourselves down to this very day.
Going in to the 1980 elections, as is well-known, Carter was saddled with the hostage crisis, one that he very likely would not have had to deal with he not gone along with leading Republicans, instead of listening to his own State Department, and leading Democrats as well, who had no use for the Shah. Because he was so inactive on the domestic Democratic agenda, he might have lost anyway. But he was a one-termer, who gave us Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
The Clinton Presidency was a one-termer in functional terms. The Republicans made sure of that from the git-go, from Gennifer Flowers (of whom they never let go) to White Water to the White House Travel Office and on and on, with a very well-funded “get Clinton” campaign. (Yes, there was indeed a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” lead by Richard Mellon Scaife.) Clinton’s biggest problem, before Monica Lewinsky, was that he was not a fighter. In fact, he was the classic child of two alcoholic parents: he wanted to please everybody, but especially his enemies. On the health care reform debate I happened to have had the opportunity, as a Designated Speaker for the Clinton Health Plan, to have seen this somewhat from the inside.
He did not fight. Either he did not know what the GOP was out to do or he did not know how to deal with them. Bill Kristol sent around a memo in December, 1993 saying that the GOP must defeat the Clinton Health Plan (CHP), for political reasons (I’ve got a copy in my files). (Kristol has done the same thing now on the Obama initiative. Clinton did not use this. Bob Dole led the charge against the CHP in the Senate, which had major features in common with the Nixon Health Plan. Funny, but with an excellent speech about everything that was wrong with the US health care system in 1973 (I’ve got a copy of excerpts of that speech in my files too) it was none other than then Republican Minority Leader Bob Dole who had introduced the Nixon Health Plan to the Senate. Clinton did not use it either. He sat there and let Dick Morris (he who had formerly worked for Sen. Trent Lott and now is a right-wing shill, was likely a GOP agent) lead him into “triangulation,” of use primarily against the Democrats in the Congress.
Then came Monica Lewinsky and the Paula Jones perjury trap that was neatly laid by Ken Starr who illegally fed the Lewinsky information to Jones’ legal team, leading to impeachment and the complete crippling of Clinton’s second. Of course, given the Lewinsky scandal what happened might have happened anyway, but it might well have turned out differently had Clinton been a Republican-fighter instead of a Republican-compromiser from the git-go. After all, the Lewinsky episode and the subsequent impeachment trial was about sex between consenting adults, not quite on the level of cheating one’s way into the Air National Guard or lying the nation into war. But that’s another story.
Which leads us to President Obama. This column is being written about a week in advance of his speech to the Congress on health care scheduled for September 9. Perhaps he will surprise us. But President Obama, like his two Democratic immediate predecessors in the White House, seems not to know who his enemies are. He seems not realize that the GOP has been out to get him since the Electoral College voted in December, 2008, if not before. They are not interested in “bi-partisanship.” They are a minority party. On the issue alone, they are destined to remain that way. After all, it is Republican polices that have put the nation into the mess it currently faces. They know that their only way back to power is to wage war, not on the objective elements of the issues, but on the person and with every Big Lie they can dream up. As is well-known, that they are now doing this to a fare-thee-well. As is well-known, it seems, to everyone except the President and his staff.
A strategic decision was made to try to “bring the country together.” Well, from Rush Limbaugh’s “I hope he fails” statement onwards, it has been clear that to do their very best to make sure that that happens is the central element of the GOP strategy. But the President persists. As of this writing (Sept. 4), he is said to be negotiating with Sen. Olympia Snow (!) for some kind of “compromise” on health care reform, that would put off the absolutely essential public option to some indeterminate date. That is a Republican policy that is a recipe for failure for any health care reform package.
But beyond that, combined with buying into Republican recipe for the totally unwinnable (no matter which way you want to define it) Afghan War, President Obama is quickly paving the road down which he will travel to being the third one-term Democratic President in a row. Since the Goldwater-Reagan takeover of their party, the Republicans have known, most of the time, how to win: stay Republican, build on their base, cheat and lie a lot. It’s not too late for Obama to learn. He is a very smart man. He needs to learn just one thing: the modern GOP is the enemy. Hugh Scott, Jacob Javits, and John Chafee are no longer in the Senate. This bunch cannot be dealt with honestly. All President needs to do is, not lie, cheat, and encourage violence, but rather follow the truly Democratic policies that he actually won the election on. He needs to become a real Democratic President doing battle with a real Party of Right-Wing Reaction. President Carter and Clinton have spent their post-Presidential years doing great charitable works both at home and abroad. If President Obama doesn’t wake up to reality, he can always go back to community organizing on the South Side of Chicago, instead of organizing his natural base to support him in full throat, and teaching constitutional law, instead of putting it into practice against the enemies of Constitutional government, like a certain former Vice-President.