The Atlantic Report on the World Today: Washington
Because there so often has been no real difference between the two political parties, it frequently has been difficult, if not impossible, to present a meaningful choice to the voters in an American presidential election. This year, fortunately, the choice will be clearer than usual. Two young men, intelligent and full of vigor, are the party standard-bearers. Both talk hopefully of the future, here at home and in America’s relations with the rest of the world.
One candidate seeks to meet the calculable problems by a more determined, fuller use of the powers of the federal government. The other believes that the problems can be handled with only a minimal increase of activity in the federal government in foreign affairs and close to none at all in domestic matters. This is the difference between progressivism and conservatism, between those who are not afraid of big government and those who are afraid, who see any expansion of the role of government as creeping socialism.
This difference was dramatized at the Republican Convention, for all the nation to see, when the numerically larger right wing was enraged at the movement to the left epitomized by the NixonRockefeller platform pact arrived at in New York. But in the end a good deal of the steam was taken out of that pact, by the more conservative language, along with a more stand-pat approach, written into the platform at the Chicago convention. In short, the “fiscal responsibility" theme triumphed in the wording of the platform.
The candidates, far more than the platforms, matter most, however, and each of the two presidential nominees can be counted on to amend his platform as the campaign progresses.
John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon are both products of the twentieth century, lout, paradoxically, they have reversed their inheritances. Kennedy, born to wealth, has come to know the problems of the millions without wealth. The seven primaries in which he participated, especially the primary in West Virginia, where he saw at first hand the worst kind of American poverty, were vital to his education and to his growth in understanding this nation. His experiences in these primaries, as he is the first to admit, were highly useful in making him a national figure and in acquainting him with the political figures of the Democratic Party who were crucial to his nomination and will be to his election. His experiences in the primaries and the convention demonstrate that, however imperfect the system, the combination of the two is the best way for us to nominate a candidate.
Nixon, born to modest circumstances, has come to know, though not to acquire, wealth and the power it gives, in a way which has convinced him that conservatism is the essence of the American system. He, too, is well aware of the unfinished business of this nation at home, but he has accepted the view that restraint of government is vital to the continuance of the growth of free economic enterprise.
A good many observers believe that Kennedy is more conservative than the public thinks and that Nixon, on the other hand, is more progressive. This is probably so, if one compares the individuals with the party platforms. But neither should be viewed in that light alone; each is the standard-bearer of a force in the American system. Neither party is totalitarian in its approach; each has its extremists at both ends of the political spectrum. But the great majority of the Democratic Party is with Kennedy as a progressive, and the great majority of the Republican Party is with Nixon as a conservative.
Elections are seldom won on slogans; slogans have meaning only as they represent issues and philosophies about government and economics. Kennedy’s thesis that his is the party of hope while the Republican is the party of memory summarizes the central Democratic view. Nixon’s derision of Democratic economic thinking as “growthmanship" epitomizes his party’s belief that the nation’s economy is the product of private leadership and not the business of government. Kennedy’s use of John Kenneth Galbraith and Nixon’s of William Yandell Elliott, to those in the intellectual world who know the two men, tell a great deal about their respective approaches.
Both Kennedy and Nixon are prisoners of their times. Each is bound to face the facts of an exploding population and its meaning at home, and also the threats of militant Communism and the problems it produces abroad. In the last analysis, it will be the voters’ views of these problems and their impressions of what a President Kennedy or a President Nixon would do about them that will decide which man will enter the White House next January.
Here at home
Consider first the domestic front. The government is involved in four important areas. Much more must be done for education of the young, not just because there are more of them than there are the necessary facilities and teachers but because the Soviet challenge has made us realize that the gifted children must have more than our egalitarian educational system has tended to provide.
Men and women in their earning years, especially those at the fringes, of our increasingly middle-class society, need more protection in terms of such things as minimum wages and social aid for migratory workers, Above all, the dynamics of the economic system require the hand of government in the transition to an automated economy, now well under way not only in our factories but in our offices as well. A subsidiary problem for those in the earning years is the problem of leisure— everything from a more fruitful use of television to an expansion of public recreation in the national parks.
For the rapidly increasing part of our population in the after-retirement age bracket, increased by the miracles of post-war medicine, there is the crying need for health and income protection. This is a problem not only for the aged themselves but for their children, whose own lives will be greatly affected by what government decides to do or not to do.
Finally, there is the special problem of agriculture, a problem resulting from the technological revolution on the farm. Not only the fate of those leaving the land is involved, but also the use of farm surpluses as a means of effecting national policy abroad.
A word should be said about one other problem which embraces all segments of the public outside the rural farm areas — the issue of government’s role in the increasingly urbanized American society. Here the question is what the federal government should do to solve the problems of public transportation, health, and protection, which now are largely the responsibility of local governments and which cross the jurisdictional lines of many of these local governments.
A great deal will be heard about the cost of what Kennedy proposes to do about all these matters. He wants to spur the economy so that, as productivity increases, the increasing tax revenues can pay the mounting bills. Nixon’s view is that the government instead should hold down expenditures, lest it require even more from the pay envelope than it takes today.
The domestic aspect of the election, in terms of those who vote on domestic issues, will be determined by whichever intellectual or emotional decision triumphs in the voter’s mind: whether he wants government to do these things for him or whether he is afraid of having government do them.
Few, nowadays, will dispute the necessity of the federal government’s dominant role in foreign affairs. With events pressing rapidly, with Nikita Khrushchev attempting to take advantage of election-year paralysis in the United States, each candidate faces a delicate and dangerous path in commenting on day-to-day developments. Both Nixon and Kennedy will have to project to the voter some idea of what they would do, if elected, over the years ahead.
In foreign a affairs, even more than in domestic matters, the record of the past eight years probably will affect the voter’s decision. Nixon can no more escape the voter’s evaluation of that record than Adlai Stevenson in 1952 could escape the voter’s evaluation of the Truman Administration. For Nixon, the unhappy fact is that American foreign policy has seemed to come a cropper in the final months of the Eisenhower years; the U-2 affair, the Summit collapse, the Japanese fiasco, the threat in Cuba just off our shores — all of this puts Nixon on the defensive.
Kennedy, however, began as a nominee largely unknown to the bulk of the voters. Those who saw him in the Senate or followed his primary campaigns knew something of his thinking, that he realizes the nature of the struggle between freedom and Communism, that he intends a highly positive role for government. Still, the Nixon argument that he himself is the best-trained candidate in history is an appealing one, a major obstacle for Kennedy to overcome.
The verdict of the voters who base their decision on foreign problems as they affect the United States will depend on the intellectual or emotional reaction to the changing nature of America’s position in the world and, equally, on the reaction to Russian or Chinese provocation.
It will be three years in October since Sputnik I first shook American complacency. Probably the most important unknown in estimating the outcome of the presidential election is how shaken that complacency is today. There is an uneasiness in the land, but how extensive is it and how directly does it relate to Richard Nixon himself? Kennedy will bear down hard on this point.
Religion and civil rights
Two other great issues cut across all lines in this campaign; religion and race. While it is true that the West Virginia Democratic primary demonstrated that non-Catholics will vote in great numbers for a Catholic candidate, this by no means guarantees that religion is out as an issue. Both outright bigotry and genuine non-Catholic fear of the Church remain, despite the forthright stand on separation of church and state taken by Kennedy. But Kennedy’s worst enemies may turn out to be the zealots among his coreligionists. Kennedy is fully aware of this danger, and he can only hope that they will not embarrass him.
The problem of the Negro minority in the United States, of its changing status in the South as well as its growing importance in the North and West, will not be resolved by this election. Neither Kennedy nor Nixon would, as President, adopt such a laissez-faire attitude as Eisenhower has. Both believe in human equality, and either man would provide far more leadership in helping to make less painful the inevitable adjustments in the public schools and elsewhere in the South.
In the course of the campaign, the general line of division between the parties and the candidates is bound to be blurred by the headlines of controversy and name calling. But it does exist and should be decisive by election day.
The Vice President
When running mates are chosen, and this year has been no exception, matters of geography and background, of voting records and past performance are all considered, along with internal problems in the political party concerned.
The nomination of Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson as Kennedy’s running mate had a double purpose: to heal the North-South breach and prevent the loss of Texas, Florida, Virginia, and perhaps other Southern states in November; and to put in the vice-presidential chair a man capable of taking over if that should ever be necessary.
Whether Johnson, the able, proud, egotistical Texan, was mesmerized by the campaign ballyhoo of his supporters to the point of believing that he might become the presidential nominee probably will never be known. At any rate, when the moment of decision came, he agreed to accept the second spot. For his part, Kennedy decided several days before his own nomination to tap Johnson as his running mate, and he stuck to his decision, despite some strong opposition from both the Northern liberals, led by Michigan’s Governor, G. Mennen Williams, and from Kennedy’s brother and campaign manager. Robert Kennedy. Bob Kennedy’s opposition to Johnson sprang, in part at least, from his commitments to many delegates, in seeking their votes for his brother, that Johnson would not be on the ticket.
Nixon’s selection of Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, as his running mate was a second choice but one based on Nixon’s analysis of the campaign ahead. He had wanted Governor Nelson Rockefeller, and at the New York meeting on the platform had tried hard to get the governor to change his mind. When that failed, Nixon turned to Lodge as the other man in the party who is well known for “standing up to the Communists,” the phrase most generally heard at the Chicago convention in explanation of the choice of Lodge. Cabot Lodge is indeed intelligent, well grounded from years in the Senate, and a shrewd politician. His main deficiency for the campaign is his lack of a base of political power (which Johnson has), because he lost his Senate seat in 1952 to Kennedy.
Nixon settled on Lodge as soon as he was certain he could not get Rockefeller. But he was careful to try to heal party wounds by going through an elaborate, and traditional, ritual of consultation with party leaders before naming his man.
The focus of power shifts
A great deal has been written about the extraordinary fact that all four top candidates this year are either present or past members of the Senate. Historically this is not totally new, for in the pre-Civil War decades the Senate produced many outstanding presidential and vicepresidential candidates. What is important is that we are now seeing a return to that practice. And this is no political accident.
In the years of the gathering storm before the Cavil War, the Senate was the focus of the conflict. Then, in the post-Civil War years — indeed, for a century, through the Eisenhower Administrations the focus of national life was outside Washington, except when that was impossible, either in war years or in the Great Depression. It has taken a new crisis, a crisis of the proportions of the one which gathered in the years before the Civil War, to bring back to Washington this focus of power.
The shift is, of course, by no means complete. There are strong resisters in both political parties, as was evidenced by the bitter-enders at both the presidential conventions.
Men of action
The problem for America today is not unlike that which faced the nation before the Civil War. And the question today is whether the nation will allow itself to drift into a conflict, one which would be incredibly more destructive, by a repetition of the policy vacuum of another James Buchanan period.
The men of the Senate — the four meu now facing the American electorate — all know that Buchananism will not do. Each pair has its own way of looking at the crisis ahead, as at the problems at home. But the difference the hopeful difference in 1960 from the period just before 1860 —is that today’s candidates are men of action.
It will be up to the voters to decide this year which promise of action is the kind that this nation needs in order to survive in the critical decade ahead. We cannot yet tell how fateful the outcome will be on November 8, but it probably can be said that there is no choice between action and inaction. The voters’ task is to make each of the candidates explain, as best he can, how he proposes to meet the challenge if he occupies the White House.