President Obama and the One-Term Democratic Presidencies - Revisited

For this issue of TPJmagazine, I am revisiting a column that I published in this space a little over two years ago. Mainly historical, it still seems to be apt. I do hope that you will agree.

Entering the White House on January 20, 1976, Jimmy Carter was in the post-Watergate, post-Viet Nam flush of Democratic victory. For the 1976 Presidential election, had it 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.   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, by none other than Sen. Bob Dole. 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. 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 very strongly warned him 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. 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 did the same thing on the Obama initiative). Clinton did not use this memo against his opposition. 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 the Dole speech either. He sat there and let Dick Morris (he who had formerly worked for Sen. Trent Lott and now is a right-wing shill, one must wonder why Clinton ever hired him) lead him into “triangulation,” of use primarily against the Democrats in the Congress, and lost the health care reform battle.  

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 term. Of course, given the Lewinsky scandal alone, that 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. The original version of this column was written about a week in advance of his speech to the Congress on health care scheduled for September 9, 2009. Perhaps, I said back then, “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. Mitch McConnell made that very clear back then, when he said that he would filibuster “any bill I don’t like.” They were not interested in “bi-partisanship” back then, and they sure aren’t interested in it now. They were then a minority party in both Houses and still are in the Senate, although through the liberal use of the filibuster they have controlled that House for most of the Obama Presidency. 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. In December 2010, with candor remarkable for a Republican, McConnell announced that his number one goal in the then upcoming Congress was to ensure the defeat of Obama in 2012. 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 (that is possibly until very, very recently. We shall have to watch Obama with care to see if he backs up with recent rhetoric with actions. He has done too little of the latter previously.)

A strategic decision was made by the Obama White House 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. For example, as of the original writing of this column (Sept. 4, 2009), he was said to have been 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. And now they have announced as a number one goal were they to win the presidency the repeal of a “reform” package that is indeed not much more than a major Federal subsidy for the private health insurance companies.

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 has been quickly paving the road down which he may well 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. In dealing with the modern Republican Party 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 the 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. Presidents 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, instead of organizing his natural base to support him in full throat and finally turning his back on the disastrous policies and politics of the Democratic Leadership Council now hiding under such mis-leading names as “No Labels” and “The Third Way,” he can always go back teaching constitutional law, instead of putting it into practice against the enemies of Constitutional government, like a certain former Vice-President and every announced candidate for the GOTP Presidential nomination. 

As my readers at BuzzFlash@Truthout and related webmagazines know, I don’t think that there is much of a chance that this will happen. But hey, you never know.