While President Nixon was unveiling the “New American Revolution,” his staff was going to unusual lengths to explain to the press the large philosophical context and lengthy intellectual genesis of his new domestic program. John Ehrlichman, the President’s assistant for domestic affairs, sent to his fellow staff members a speech made by candidate Nixon in 1968, containing some of the ideas in the President’s State of the Union message. Doubt, it seems, was lurking in the very bosom of the White House.
The central elements of the program— revenue sharing and the reorganization of the Cabinet—were not, in fact, decided upon until around Christmas, according to reliable witnesses. Among the reasons for the new approaches, it is said, was that the collective Cabinet and White House machinery had not come up with much else to do. Within the Cabinet, the champion of the new program was Housing Secretary George Romney, who has experimented with combining programs and giving local authorities more power over their distribution.
The President, moreover, read the 1970 election returns far more carefully and soberly than the postelection victory statements from the White House suggested. From the Senate to the state legislatures—particularly the state legislatures which will be reapportioning congressional districts—the returns were bad news for the Republican Party. The election strategy had not worked. It was time for a return to domestic concerns and high-mindedness.
The President’s lateness in deciding to proceed on the two major domestic proposals explains why, for some time after he announced them, there was still so little known about how they would work. Interagency task forces were still figuring out how to make seven Cabinet departments into four. The competing bureaucratic, private, and regional interests were trying to bend the proposals into more amenable form before they moved to torpedo them on Capitol Hill.
As for revenue sharing, the President was really proposing two different things: (1) handing some unfettered money over to state and local governments to spend as they chose, and (2) ending a large number of federal programs by combining them into broader categories. These would be education, urban development, rural development, transportation, job training, and law enforcement. The second idea is one that has been more commonly referred to as “block grants.” For some time after the President proposed this, key decisions had not been made about what sort of federal requirements and federal reviews would be attached to this money. Therefore, the debate began while there was still confusion as to what anyone was talking about.
Nevertheless, certain principles in the President’s program were very clear. The “New American Revolution” is in part a rhetorical updating of the arguments that were advanced against federal programs during the Eisenhower period and the early 1960s. The states and the local governments can do the job, it was and is said. Moreover, if they decide not to do some of the jobs, that’s their business. “I think,” says George Shultz, head of the Office of Management and Budget, and now the most important staff man in the making of White House domestic policy, “that it’s important that we don’t make the presumption that more government and higher taxes are necessarily desirable. That’s not necessarily the case at all. There may be a lot of these things that we can work out in our private life, that can be done just as well or maybe better.” State and local governments will be relieved of current requirements to put up some of the money for the domestic programs. The electoral defeat of bond issues, and of governors who proposed tax increases, and the competition among the states to keep taxes low so as to attract industry suggest that state spending for public purposes will not increase, and may well drop, once the matching requirements are removed.
Most people who have thought about it agree that there are too many special purpose (“categorical”) programs, with overlapping or even crosspurposes. Cumulatively, they require too much paper work and too many visits by too many local officials to too much paper work and too many too often unaware of what the others are doing. Even the Johnson Administration, which spawned so many of these programs, tried to combine a number of them into block grants. The real issue is whether some of the national purposes which were adopted during the 1960s are now to be abandoned. It was precisely because the state and local governments did not provide these services, or did not provide them evenly, to the various segments of society that programs such as aid to education and Model Cities, both with emphasis on aid to the poorer neighborhoods, were adopted. It is no accident that every time proposals for consumer protection or pollution control have been put forward, the industry lobbyists here have worked to place the enforcement in the hands of state, rather than federal, officials. To shake a fist at a swollen federal bureaucracy may be satisfying, but it begs the point.
President Nixon himself has said that some federal programs will remain which will reflect shared national purposes. His list includes welfare and health insurance. So the question is really: What else should be on that list?
One may argue that the assembled Congress, for all of its faults, is just as representative of “the people” as the collective state legislatures, if not more so. But Presidents can usually define the terms of an argument like this one. Much of the opposition to Nixon’s plan, moreover, will not spring from the loftiest concerns. Interest groups, bureaucrats, and congressional committees will not give up their clientele, money, and power without a fight. It will be difficult to persuade congressmen and senators to turn over political leverage to governors and mayors, many of whom aspire to be congressmen and senators themselves. Mr. Nixon may well succeed in presenting opponents of his plans, whatever their rationales, as defensive of the federal bureaucrats, protective of the special interests, contemptuous of “the people.”
The federal government tried to do something new in the 1960s: to change human institutions and behavior. It was assumed that, through special laws and incentives, certain priorities and forms of behavior could be established throughout the country. The government concerned itself with projects as various as lighting streets, treating sewage, eradicating measles, desegregating housing, giving special instruction to children who could not speak English, requiring that the poor be given more voice in programs that affected them. This was far different from the 1930s, when the responsibilities which the federal government assumed were relatively uncomplicated and conducive to uniform approaches, such as social security, or veterans’ benefits. Aside from the question whether the liberal approach of the 1960s was “right” or “wrong,” or whether it “worked”— in most cases it is too soon to tell— there may have been another kind of failure. A fallacy of 1960s liberalism may have been a failure to see that human behavior is not easily changed. It overplayed its hand. In so doing, the liberals dissipated their purposes, overtaxed the limits of competence, and finally wore the country out. These are things that Richard Nixon seems to understand.
What is also becoming clear in the President’s proposals is a rather definitive politics of class. Not only is much of the Great Society (for which read: special help for the poor) to be dismantled, but the middle and upper classes are to be relieved of some of their relative share of the tax burden. This could be done partly through lifting the requirements that the state and local governments put up some of the money for federal programs. The Administration is also working up a proposal for a valueadded tax (for which read: national sales tax). Columnist Joseph Alsop has reported, with every indication that he has it from the horse’s mouth, that the President wants “to finance reasonable reductions in the present corporate and personal income taxes,” and to allow reductions in property and other state and local taxes. This would result in a redistribution of the tax burden from the upper to the lower classes, and possibly a net reduction in the taxing and spending for the public sector.
The President’s budget message was released for the Saturday newspapers, always a sign that government officials would be just as glad if something were not so widely read. That way, attention could be diverted from the fact that an $11.6 billion deficit was forecast for this year, and that last year’s predicted $1.3 billion surplus became an $18.6 billion deficit. The new forecasts, as has been widely reported, are based on assumptions of economic growth and recovery with which outside economists do not agree.
A most significant figure in the new budget is the one for the Pentagon; that figure has gone back up. The importance of this is not so much the large amount itself—$77.5 billion, over one billion more than last year —but what it signals. It sheds more light on the real meaning of the “Nixon Doctrine,” by which the government is supposed to be reducing its commitments around the world. The Pentagon appears simply to be changing the mix of forces with which it meets the old commitments: fewer ground troops, more air and sea weaponry. The new budget projects fewer armed forces divisions at the end of the year than there were before the Vietnam War. Troop reductions produce large savings. Enter the military with claims on that and more, and arguments that their weaponsprocurement schedules were thrown off by the drain of the defense budget into Vietnam. Even inflation and pay increases, to which the Pentagon attributes much of the rise in the budget, do not fully account for it. The fact that the budget for the military is going up is essentially attributable to decisions to buy substantial amounts of expensive new weapons. Moreover, since the costs of these weapons keep going up, the new military budget also represents a heavy mortgage on the future.
It represents, too, abandonment of the pretense that Pentagon requests would be subjected to rigorous independent review. The Nixon Administration used to talk about how the Pentagon’s requests would be scrutinized as never before by an interagency committee and the Budget Bureau (now the Office of Management and Budget, headed by Shultz). It is reliably reported that this year the Joint Chiefs of Staff simply and directly persuaded the President and Henry Kissinger, his national security adviser, of the need for the new weapons. The big increase is for the Navy. In some informed quarters this is attributed to President Nixon’s visit to the Sixth Fleet last fall. Schultz and his staff are said to have objected to the increases, but in vain. The role of Defense Secretary Melvin Laird is typically unclear. For a time, at least, Laird was trying to reduce defense expenditures. But he is accomplished at detecting which way the wind is blowing, and, at least by the time the direction of the Pentagon budget became clear, Laird was in step.
It may be, as some of the President’s assistants have intimated, that Mr. Nixon is laying the groundwork for making national security his own issue in 1972. He was trying, it would be argued, to maintain a responsible, strong national defense, and to liquidate the war in an honorable fashion, while the doves were undermining both efforts. More to the point, it is increasingly clear that Messrs. Nixon and Kissinger are true believers in what they are doing, loath to take any action in Indochina or on arms control that would suggest to the Communists that we are weak or can be pushed around. The decisions they are making are consistent with their writings and statements over the years. They are, according to this theory—held by people who know them well—acting on principle.
The rationale of the Nixon Administration for continued military actions in Indochina, and for keeping the public ignorant when deemed necessary, is that it will all work out in the end. By 1972, when the President is substantially out of the war, this reasoning goes, all will be forgiven and forgotten. It seemed safe to ignore, therefore, those who feel that bombing Southeast Asia is no more acceptable than marching over it; who no longer tolerate even momentary evasions of the facts about the war; who doubt the President’s capacity, even intent, to end the war.
A number of senators who oppose the war think that the President’s calculation might just be right, and they have been chary of criticizing his military moves. They were quiescent when the war expanded into Laos because they thought the President had been successful in his arguments about the necessity and efficacy of the Cambodian invasion last year. They were weary. “What can we do?” said one. “We make speeches, demand that the Secretaries of Defense and State testify, pass laws restricting the President’s actions, and on it goes.” The congressional restrictions on the use of ground troops in Laos and Cambodia were considered major actions at the time. “The current restraints imposed by Congress are utterly insufficient to the task,” said Senator J. W. Fulbright in a recent speech. “All they really do is to provide the Administration with an excuse for doing anything and everything that is not explicitly forbidden —and, as we have seen, all it takes to transfer some contemplated military action from the prohibited category to the permissible is a certain agility in semantics and an extraordinary contempt for the constitutional authority of Congress.”
The more informed opponents of the war here fear that the President miscalculates the danger of the military maneuvers which the Administration says are to hasten and secure the withdrawal. They fear, too, that he may become trapped in his pattern of escalating and withdrawing at the same time, unable in the end to stop fighting. Every once in a while, President Johnson asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff what they would like to be doing in Indochina that they were not then permitted to do. The list: bomb Cambodia (begun, spring of 1969, and continuing); invade Cambodia (done, spring of 1970); invade Laos (done, by proxy); bomb all military targets in North Vietnam; invade north of the demilitarized zone; mine Haiphong Harbor. The assumption is that Mr. Nixon has been going down the list not so much to “win” the war as to prove to Hanoi that while he is withdrawing troops, he can’t be pushed around. The danger is that Hanoi will decide it can’t be either.
The cocoon of unreality in which Washington can wrap itself was demonstrated earlier this year, when American and South Vietnamese troops assembled at the Laotian border, and the government imposed a news blackout on what it was all about. One day in early February, during the “embargo” on the maneuvers in Indochina, the press briefings at the Pentagon, the State Department, and the White House provided the following illuminations:
The Pentagon. The regular 11 a.m. briefing was held in a studio on the ground floor of the Pentagon. The studio is past a long series of public information offices, one of which has a sign in it which says DYNAMIC SECURITY. Jerry Friedheim, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Information, announced that on the following day Secretary Laird would meet with participants in a Senate youth program. He also informed the reporters that a general who deals with health and environment was testifying that day before the Senate Small Business Committee, and that some Air Force personnel had come to the briefing to tell the reporters all about the Air Force’s traffic-safety program.
The reporters were shown a film of “gunship operations” on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. “Does this show an airborne interrogation chamber?” one of the reporters asked. Laughter. The reference was to reports that Vietnamese captives are interrogated while aboard helicopters, and occasionally tossed out. The color film, taken at night, showed the explosions when the bombs hit the earth. The technical quality of the film was greatly admired.
Friedheim, young and soft-spoken, wearing black-rimmed glasses and a flag in his lapel, sat on a table in the front of the room and asked the reporters if there were any questions. The Defense Department does not provide a transcript against which to check one’s notes, so following are, as accurately as possible, portions of the exchange:
Q. Do you know how long the embargo is going to last?
A. No, I don’t.
Q. Just for the record, may I ask if South Vietnamese troops have invaded Laos?
A. No comment.
Q. Secretary Laird is in charge of the Pentagon and there is supposed to be civilian control. I think you’re accountable. . . .
A. We have certainly worked with General Abrams and encouraged him. . . . We do not dictate to him from here decisions about the safety and security of his troops.
Q. (A reporter then made a statement about the fact that not only was there an embargo on what was happening in Vietnam, but there was an embargo on the fact that there was an embargo. In the case of Cambodia, he said, the President went on television with a map and showed targets we might hit. Can you cite, he asked, a precedent for embargoing an embargo?)
A. I’ll take your questions.
Q. When will you give us answers?
A. When and if I can.
Q. When will you extricate yourself from this tangle, since no one knows what to believe?
A. That will be determined by General Abrams.
Q. Wasn’t General Abrams concerned about the safety and security of his troops when the President went on the tube and showed the targets?
A. I don’t care to answer that.
Q. Are some of the senators fully informed?
A. I don’t know what “fully informed” means.
Q. More informed than we are.
Q. Do you consider reconnaissance teams ground combat troops?
A. On the ground?
QOn the ground.
A. It would depend if they are engaged in ground combat or intelligence-gathering.
Q. Are there reconnaissance teams operating in Laos?
A. There are no ground combat troops in Laos.
Q. Would you define “credibility gap”?
Q. I think it would be fair to say that most of us feel that we have been misled or fooled. Is there growing concern on the part of Mr. Laird that there is a growing credibility problem around town?
A. If at any point we have to sacrifice instant credibility to protect the safety of the troops, the safety of the troops will prevail.
The State Department. Robert McCloskey, the State Department’s briefing officer, is a handsome, graying man with a worried look. His job, like Friedheim’s, is one of the most difficult in the government, for these men are caught between their responsibilities to their superiors and their supposed obligation to inform the press. They can be no more informative than they are permitted to be, and so when a general, or, as was suspected in this case, the White House, gives orders not to tell what is going on, they are trapped.
Q. Bob, can you give us any idea when the news blackout will end?
A. I can’t.
Q. What about the developments in Cambodia?
A. No comment.
Q. Have we got to a point where we are no-commenting all military action in Indochina?
A. By and large, yes.
Q. Would you tell us why?
A. For reasons we would judge to be those of security.
Q. Bob, who ordered the news embargo?
A. I think Defense has answered that question several times over the last days.
Q. Is this an effort to put those who remain in Vietnam back into combat?
A. No comment.
Q. Bob, on those operations that you don’t want to talk about, have those operations been discussed with the troopcontributing countries to the Vietnam War?
A. No comment.
The White House. At his regular 4 P.M. meeting, the second of the day, Ron Ziegler announced that the President would make some remarks on the following morning to the American College of Cardiology, that he had appointed a new examinerin-chief to the U.S. Patent Office and accepted the resignation of a representative to a UN committee. Ziegler, dressed in a navy-blue suit and white shirt, his baby-blue eyes matched by the baby-blue velvet backdrop against which he stood, conducted the briefing impassively. Occasionally, the tension showed in the puckering of his mouth before he answered. The White House press corps, knowing that Ziegler was the creature of his superiors, was inclined that afternoon to go easy. Yet there were some exchanges about Southeast Asia.
Q. Ron, can you tell us anything at all about what is going on in the northern section of South Vietnam?
A. No, I cannot.
Q. Would you say that the biggest part of the President’s time today was spent on the Indochina business?
A. No, I wouldn’t say that.
Q. Would you tell us approximately how much of the time [the President] spent on Indochina?
A. I haven’t logged it.
Q. Ron, is there a concern here about the vacuum that’s developed in connection with the current military operations?
A. I’d prefer not to get into that discussion.
Q. Well, has the issue been discussed?
A. (Ziegler put the answer on “background,” meaning it could not be reported.)
Q. Were there any briefings of any senators or congressmen about Laos?
A. I’m not going to get into that.
Q. Does the President feel that the operation is going well? Laughter. End of briefing.
“Their little things”
The Democrats are showing a vague awareness that next year they have to get organized. The Democratic liberals’ congenital incapacity to hang together was quite apparent as the year began. Liberal divisions, and responses to favors past and promised, helped bring about the defeat of Edward M. Kennedy by Robert Byrd as Senate Whip and the election of Hale Boggs as House Majority Leader. There were some cracks in the glacial hold of seniority, with both parties in the House at least saying it is no longer the rule. In theory, no, but in effect, still yes.
There were many factors involved in Kennedy’s defeat. He hadn’t paid enough attention to the job when he held it, and he underestimated the danger that he’d lose it. Moreover, there may be no more important factor in the inner workings of the Senate than ego. The nondescript-looking Byrd was willing to do all the little chores and favors that earn a senator the gratitude of his colleagues. Byrd was no threat; he was suspected of harboring no national ambitions. The larger meaning of the fact that his peers took from Kennedy the job they had given him two years earlier was that they no longer feared him.
The many potential Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate are expected to make a coherent opposition to Nixon all the more elusive, but at least one Senate Democrat sees it differently. “They will each have their little things,” he said. “George McGovern has his hunger and his war. Ed Muskie has his environment. Birch Bayh is running on a new Constitution; he has a constitutional amendment for everything— women, direct elections, and so on. Proxmire is running against the Pentagon. Scoop Jackson is running for national security. Ted Kennedy has his health care, and Fred Harris has his welfare and child care. They will leave each other alone.” It is a rather beguiling, but dubious, theory.
Muskie is generally agreed to be the “front runner,” but it is not yet clear how deep his support is. Some political reporters who travel with him say that at this point it is based largely on state political leaders’ “pragmatic” judgment that Muskie is a winner. Moreover, as long as Muskie appears to be in front, he will have far greater access than his competitors to the money that will be essential for any candidate who enters the growing number of important primaries—at least $10 million, according to one informed investor. If the potential candidates to the left of him don’t cancel each other out by jumping in, it is possible that one of them, stirring more emotion, could trip him up in some primaries. By 1972, Muskie’s cool, deliberate style might not match the national mood as well as it did in 1968. The Muskie strategy is to stay with the center of the party. His advisers are essentially men who served the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations in the 1960s. They are doves, most are able, but there is a question how fresh any government-in-exile can be. Because he appears to be so far in front, Muskie may already have more advisers and campaign workers than there will be federal jobs to appoint them to if he wins.
A major factor in the next election, however, will be not only whom the Democrats nominate but how he secures the nomination. No one yet knows how much effect reform of the delegate-selection process will have on the makeup of the next Democratic convention. It may be true that the Democratic left cannot elect the President, but it has sufficient numbers, power, and capacity to disrupt the party to see to the defeat of the Democratic nominee. Therefore, if the next nomination is arranged by the old coalition of South, labor chiefs, and the remaining political powers, such as Mayor Daley; if the party reforms have not been widely adopted; if a party-splitting issue arises, or is deliberately created, the Democratic nomination could be a worthless prize.
Muskie is suffering the trials of the front runner. He is being pushed to take positions that, in his instinctively cautious way, he would just as soon not. Journalists parse a Muskie statement as if they were Talmudic scholars. The press is also now on to the fact that Muskie can have a short fuse, and they poke and prod to see if he will explode. But the common analogy of Muskie’s position to that of George Romney in 1968 is a false one. Muskie is better prepared for the test, a shrewder politician, and a more careful one.
A number of political observers feel that George McGovern is being underestimated as a candidate. He is a much tougher man than most descriptions of him suggest, and he has done a lot of quiet work to get his candidacy moving. Harold Hughes, a big, direct man with considerable crowd-swaying powers, might become a very important contender. There will be several more candidates, in the Senate and out. John Lindsay is expected to change parties. Eugene McCarthy is watching. The safest, but also probably most valid, view is that anything can still happen.
There is a related question that is increasingly on people’s minds here. It is how much, even if the Democrats should win the next election, would change.