Governing, no matter who does it, is always in some part philosophy and in some part exigency, and it is never very easy to assign precise percentages to each component. Presidents, aided by enthusiastic assistants, are usually anxious to offer the public a lofty philosophical framework for their actions, which may in fact be based on a combination of philosophy, politics, payoff, or panic. The Nixon Administration has worked especially hard to assign a conceptual framework to the actions which it takes, and the strain has sometimes showed. Now that it has gone through the early-in-theterm rituals of delivering formal messages on what the President believed was best for his country and what he proposed to do about it, the philosophy and exigency are a bit easier to sort out, and the consequences clearer.
As it happens, his philosophical themes are to be taken seriously, all the more so since they happen to coincide with pragmatic realities of a political strategy, a satisfying electoral victory, and a tight budget. All of these things combined to liberate the President and his aides to do many things that they had wanted to do all along-kill some programs, abolish some agencies, fire some officials-without fear of the consequences in the Congress or the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times. It was clear from conversations with some officials at the outset of the first term that the Nixon Administration took a dim view of many Great Society ventures, especially the poverty and model cities programs. They would have liked to fire, as they recently did, the longtime head of the Social Security Administration, who had the misfortune of being what has become known as an HOD (Held-Over Democrat). The question for the first Nixon Administration was whether these actions would be worth the hassles with the Congress and the press.
“We beat the bastards”
The Nixon Administration of the first term, narrowly elected and new to Washington, was in fact, according to some of its members, more than a little intimidated by the politicians and journalists who do so much to determine Washington’s mood. But in time it learned to give as good as it got. Earlier this year, a spokesman was explaining why the Administration could now do some things it had not done before. “We beat the bastards,”he said. Another put it in slightly more polite terms: “The President ran on a platform of no new taxes and no inflation. He got a 61 percent response. He has every right in the world to say that what he is now proposing is the will of the people.”
Actually the President-except for the brief moment during which Daniel Patrick Moynihan convinced him that he was Disraeli, a Tory capable of important reform, and should support a broad income maintenance scheme—has held to a fairly steady domestic course. He has let it be known again and again that he sought to reduce the size of the government and the amounts of money the government spends, and to return many decisions about the arrangement of domestic priorities back to state and local governments. His more aggressive espousal of these positions at the beginning of his second term represented the intersection of the upward curve in the courage of his convictions with some practical realities.
It also represented the fundamental Nixonian view of political leadership. Characteristically, he dressed up this view in a philosophical speech, delivered over radio last October 21, during the presidential campaign. “The truth is,” said the President, “that a great many people in politics and elsewhere believe that the people just do not know what’s good for them. Putting it bluntly, they have more faith in government than they have in people. They believe that the only way to achieve what they consider social justice is to place power in the hands of a strong central government which will do what they think has to be done, no matter what the majority thinks. To them, the will of the people is the ‘prejudice of the masses.’ They deride anyone who wants to respond to that will of the people as ‘pandering to the crowd.’ A decent respect for the practice of majority rule is automatically denounced as ‘political expediency.’ I totally reject this philosophy.”
There were times, he recognized, when a President had to lead, to go against what appears to be the prevailing public opinion. The President pointed out that on November 3, 1969, he had gone on television to summon support for his Vietnam policy. And, he recalled, “the great silent majority” of Americans responded to “a call to responsibility, to honor, and to sacrifice.” “That is why,” he said, “I cannot ally myself with those who habitually scorn the will of the majority, who treat a mature people as children to be ordered about.”
There is more than one apparent paradox here. In a post-election interview, the President said: “The average American is just like the child in the family. You give him some responsibility and he is going to amount to something. He is going to do something. If, on the other hand, you make him completely dependent and pamper him and cater to him too much, you are going to make him soft, spoiled, and eventually a very weak individual.”
And, as the President tells it, the summons to support his Vietnam policy may not have been quite so courageous. The support for his policy, as he says, was there to be evoked. “Public opinion,” whatever that is and however it is to be determined, is likely to be with a President, at least at first, after a major appeal to the nation. That is what makes the office so powerful, and frightening. Moreover, it takes two to tangle, and it might be recalled that key congressional opponents of the President’s war policy eschewed taking him on just after the November, 1969, speech, for fear the President had indeed persuaded the people. This fear then became selffulfilling. Many war opponents looked back at late 1969 as the time when the President gained control over the war issue and established a policy he was to pursue for four years.
In a conversation shortly after the 1972 election, a presidential assistant made it clear that Mr. Nixon sees a distinction between the necessity of exercising leadership in foreign policy and in domestic policy. In domestic policy, “the will of the people” is to be followed. “Does this mean,” the President asked in his October 21 speech, “that a President should read all the public opinion polls before he acts, and then follow the opinion of the majority down the line? Of course not.”
“This Administration,” said a departing and on the whole loyal official a few weeks ago, “is run by the goddamn opinion polls.” The exact role of the opinion polls in the President’s decision-making—and their role in his decision-making as distinct from that of any other politician’s—notwithstanding, the President’s October speech was a remarkable statement of majoritarian politics.
An important subtheme in that same speech was what the President’s assistant later described as the President’s personal concern about the excessive national influence of “elitists.” The anti-elitist theme connects the Administration’s battles on several fronts: “elitists” had opposed the President while he was trying to negotiate an “honorable settlement” of the war; “elitists” dominate the media; “elitists” run foundations, favor busing (except for their own children), and they like federal programs. “The condescending policies of paternalism” which the President decried in his inaugural address this year, said the assistant, are elitism carried into government. The anti-elitist theme is consonant with the Administration’s attempt to construct a “New American Majority,” including the Wallace vote. Anti-elitism was not and would not be transfigured into anti-intellectualism, the aide explained, because some intellectuals were anti-elitist too. How then, I asked, do you decide who is an “elitist”? He replied, “Does he tell you what he wants you to do, or what you want to do?”
The lineage of the October 21 speech can be traced back to a paper drafted early in the Administration by presidential assistant William Safire and said to have the concurrence of the President. Safire affixed the name “Publius” to the paper, and it found its way into the hands of Washington journalists. “Publius” attempted to define the interconnection between morality and leadership as seen by those who at that point were being called the “New Federalists.” “In a proudly diverse, pluralistic society,” he wrote, “what is ‘in good conscience’ in one place may be in bad conscience somewhere else. ‘Good’ men differ on marijuana, segregation, and the conflict of rights between free press and fair trial; what determines a ‘national’ conscience? To the New Federalists, morality in a nation is determined not by government policy, church decree, or social leadership-what is moral is what most people who think about morality at all think is moral at a given time.”
And the lineage of majoritarian politics can be traced forward, to the President’s inaugural address this year, to the budget message in which the President’s program is made explicit.
Chicken and egg
On a Friday afternoon in January, reporters in Washington went through the annual ritual of receiving the brown shopping bags which contain the documents laying out the new budget, and on the following day, a gloomy, rainy Saturday, they made the rounds of the government offices where officials conduct briefings on the details of the documents. The budget is where ideology must be reduced to specific numbers and proposals. “Two years ago,” the President said in the budget message, “I spoke of the need for a new American Revolution to return power to people and put the individual self back in the idea of self-government. The 1974 budget moves us firmly toward that goal.” It points the direction, his aides say, in which he intends to go over the next four years.
But one can impute to such documents more philosophy than is there. They are also the result of bureaucratic infighting, of lastminute decisions, of unresolved disputes, and of stark realities. This one, for all of its ideological overlay, was no exception. One can get conflicting chicken-versus-egg versions of the relative importance of reality or theology in this year’s budget. “I’ll tell you what they’ve been doing,” said an Administration man who was involved on behalf of one of the agencies in the procedures by which the budget was designed. “They tried to take that $250-billion budget ceiling which the President tried to get through the Congress last session and make cuts to hold to it. After that, making the new budget was easier. They came at the fiscal 1974 budget through the 1972 budget. They are not so much trying to cut down programs they ideologically don’t want or jack up programs they ideologically want as to balance the budget. That’s the ideology. To the extent that ideology plays a role beyond that, it’s a minor theme. The ideology was more fiscal than programmatic. The self-reliance theme was not that important.”
By several accounts, the budget makers fought the Pentagon as well as the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in seeking to hold the budget down. But outgoing Defense Secretary Melvin Laird was the better bureaucrat, shrewder at dealing with the Office of Management and Budget, more resourceful at putting the budget cutters on the defensive. He could cite to them— and they knew that the military could cite to congressional allies and to the public—the growing Soviet strategic “threat.”
Whether or not there is an increased “threat” is debatable, but in terms of the budget-making process, that is not entirely the question. The question is also whether policy makers want to appear to be in the position of not taking the possible threat seriously enough. Thus, the military budget has risen again. It is true, as Administration officials say, that much of this can be ascribed to inflation, and to the steep rise in the cost of military pay. But there are also substantial outlays for new weapons. The military budget does not reflect a post-cold-war, post-domino-theory world. It can and will be argued, of course, that the only way to have such a world is to be prepared for its alternative, for nuclear war with the Soviet Union and for deterrence against aggression with conventional forces. Yet former managers as well as students of the defense budget estimate that even without radical surgery another $10 billion could be saved there.
Since, as an Administration man put it, social programs are “soft,” not “hard,” like the Trident submarine, it is easier for budget makers to cut a program than a weapon, and harder for officials in the respective agencies to defend a program than a weapon. There was a time, back in the Johnson Administration, when it was believed that a government-wide Planning-Programming-Budgeting System could serve up to the policy makers sufficient information about the relative payoffs from various government investments. At the beginning of the Nixon Administration, there was talk about establishing a system by which military and domestic claims could compete. But in fact there still is no structure within the government for balancing off competing claims.
Moreover, as one man at HEW put it, “The budget always reflects political realities. We say, ‘That’s Dan Flood’s favorite program. (Congressman Flood, Democrat of Pennsylvania, is chairman of HEW’s appropriations subcommittee.] It’s lousy. Let’s keep it.’ And there are too many programs to choose from to make good choices. A bureaucrat way down in the budget bureau gets involved in a health program and says ‘It stinks,’ and that becomes policy.” Moreover, though they have tried, HEW officials under both the Democrats and Republicans have failed to develop the necessary information for making rational decisions about the relative success or failure of their programs. “We spend many millions on data that produces fifty cents’ worth to the policy makers,” said one HEW official. “It’s a body without a brain.” In the debate over whether or not federal programs “work,” the truth of the matter is that in most instances nobody really knows.
Another characteristic of the debate over federal programs is that the anecdotal syndrome works both ways. Just as some programs were begun on the basis of a kind of enthusiastic response to isolated success stories, case stories of bad/dumb/scandal-tinged projects will be used in the attempt to end some programs.
Up against a budget ceiling, hard put to defend their expenditures, essentially, according to various accounts, excluded from White House deliberations in December when key decisions were being made, serving clients without political force in the Nixon Administration, facing a predisposition against social programs on the part of the President and his top assistants, HEW fared poorly in the scramble for scarce federal dollars. Moreover, because of the lack of communication and then lastminute squabbles, the HEW budget is, as one official put it, “jerry-built” in spite of the philosophical draping given it by the Administration.
It also reflects some political realities. Despite cutbacks in spending for health, for example, cancer and heart disease are still singled out as worthy of presidential priority. This can be attributed to the President’s instinct for issues with which he believes it is good to be identified, and also to the influence of Elmer Bobst, honorary chairman of the WarnerLambert Pharmaceutical Company and the President’s “honorary godfather”; of Mary Lasker, the durable, bipartisan, wealthy espouser of these health causes; and of Benno Schmidt, managing partner of J. H. Whitney and Company and, like Mr. Bobst, a Lasker ally. There is to be a new national program dealing with hypertension, also a reflection of Mrs. Lasker’s determination and access to power. As in the Democratic administrations, doors are open to her at both HEW and the White House. [See the author’s “The Health Syndicate,” The Atlantic, December, 1967—Ed.]
A general attempt was made throughout the budget to fold several “categorical” programs into a “special revenue sharing” fund, to be spent for an overall purpose, such as community development, crime control, job training, or education. But an exception was to be made in the case of education. HEW officials convinced the White House that the abolition of the basic concept of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, of focusing aid on poor children, would be too controversial. Therefore, in the special revenue sharing for education, what officials refer to as “the disadvantaged component” is to be maintained. When the budget was released in February, they could not explain, because they had not yet figured out, just how this was to be done. The amount that would be required to be spent on the “disadvantaged” would, however, be reduced. Despite the tight budget, there will be a new program of tax credits for private-school tuition, fulfilling a pledge to the “new majority.”
The Nixon approach
The cacophony of objections raised by the overall budget-cutting tended to blur distinctions. There are some budget cuts which earlier administrations tried, but failed, to get through the Congress. The only difference was that the Nixon Administration had the courage to try to cut deeper into such politically popular programs as agricultural subsidies, the Rural Electrification Act’s low-cost loans, veterans’ pensions, and the Army Corps of Engineers’ public works projects. It ventured to raise the grazing fees which ranchers must pay for the use of public lands. Like several Presidents before him, Mr. Nixon is attempting to end a program which gives extra school aid to areas which also have the good fortune to contain government projects.
The Administration is not alone in thinking that it is time to end the twenty-six-year-old Hill-Burton hospital construction program, which builds new hospitals mainly where they are not needed. Few tears came to the eyes—even of former Democratic officials—over the proposal to end the Regional Medical Program of 1965, another project inspired by Mrs. Lasker and her allies to “bring the latest in medical discoveries to the bedside.” While the purpose seemed unexceptionable, the methods by which this was to happen were never very clear, and the program became bogged down in local health politics. Even several of the Democrats who conceived them, it must be remembered, have agreed that there are too many federal programs. They too were searching for ways to combine them. They too had the idea of “spinning off" poverty program activities to the various agencies, as the Nixon Administration proposes. But now these activities face an uncertain future, and the Community Action Program, highly symbolic and productive of new political leadership for the poor, is scheduled for extinction.
The gutting of the Great Society was not so extensive as indicated by either the President’s rhetoric or the collective outcries by defenders of particular programs. Nor, in fact, was overall spending for social purposes reduced. One suspects that the President anticipated the noise and even invited it in order to discount and discredit it. “It only goes to show,” said one of his aides during the early uproar over the budget, “the long arm of the bureaucracy.” Budgets are also battle plans. If members of Congress should choose to line up against the Administration as spenders, taxers, or “paternalists,” that would be their problem.
But the inconsistencies, exceptions, and rhetorical postures notwithstanding, there is a philosophy in the Nixon program, one with profound political and economic implications. The defense budget and the tax code were not attacked with the same vigor as were the domestic programs. The poor, and to an even greater degree the near-poor, were the hardest hit. The Nixon approach would alter fundamentally not just the methods by which the federal government operates but also its purposes. In his budget message, the President says that “most of these programs simply did not do the job.” That is one issue. The other issue is whether the job is to be done at all. Most of the programs were begun on the premise that there were some national purposes. By various means, more equity was to be created among people who had different incomes and lived in different areas. This is what the debates over the federal role, during the last twenty years, were all about.
The provision of several services designed to offer more equity is to be phased out or turned over to state and local governments, at varying rates of speed. There are still a number of questions. The brakes were slammed on subsidized housing programs without any indication of what, if anything, was to take their place. The housing programs were often poorly managed, prone to scandal, expensive, and, perhaps more to the point, enmeshed in racial politics over where they were to be placed. But they were providing housing for the poor and near-poor. Job training programs are being reduced and turned over to the states, which have tended, in job programs over which they already had discretion, not to favor those most in need.
While Elliot Richardson was still Secretary of HEW, his department had been working on an alternative to the programmatic approach of the Great Society. The basic idea was to turn over, to the maximum extent possible, the provision of services health, education, rat control, or what have you—to the states or to private entities. If necessary, there would be federal help to instigate the supply of services. But central to the plan was the notion that people would be provided with more income with which to purchase these services. “You have to assume,” said one of the plan’s designers, “that equal access to certain kinds of services is a social goal. One aim of government can be to make individuals as independent as possible. One of the first things you conclude is that the basic barrier to independence is poverty.” The purpose of the exercise was to provide a more rational framework for what was to be done at whatever levels of government. The plan might not have cost less, or even reduced the number of federal bureaucrats. The White House was not interested.
The Nixon budget in effect moves toward the phasing out of services, without substituting the income with which to acquire them. The concept of national purposes has been sharply diluted. Decisions over whether to provide these services, for whom to provide them, and how to pay for them will be returned to state and local governments. The various interest and economic groups will have to fight it out over how the combined federal and local resources are to be spent.
When the President says that as far as domestic questions are concerned he is for the work ethic, fewer handouts, smaller government, less federal intervention-however he phrases it—he is to be believed. Though he may not be a decentralizer when centralization suits him, decentralization of government is clearly the preferred course. When he and his aides say that this year’s proposals point the direction of the next four years, they are to be taken at their word. But they may have taken on more fights than they can win. Events can change the best-laid presidential plans. Public opinion can snap around against a President, even when he appears to be riding high. After all, the mandate which the President sees in his reelection victory was not reflected in the results of the 1972 congressional elections.