Washington: The Politics of Immobility

The political establishment is reluctant to look beyond traditional liberalism and conservatism for solutions to the nation’s problems


BIG NEWS OFTEN seems completely unimportant not long after it breaks, and when its about presidential campaigns its life is especially short, measurable in days or even hours. To read an account of a recent campaign is to be amazed that the political world could have turned for a while around Jimmy Carter’s Playboy interview or Gerald Ford’s play to become co-President on the Republican ticket in 1980. When the accounts of this year’s campaign are written, Gary Hart’s surge of popularityin the Democratic primaries will most likely seem just as insignificant—an event that mattered greatly while it was going on and not much thereafter.

But there’s one point about Hart’s campaign that does deserve to be remembered: the immediate and strong hostility with which other politicians and the press greeted his notion of “new ideas.” The prevailing view in American politics today is that the established liberal and conservative answers to every question are all the answers we will ever need. That view, which existed before and lives on after the Hart campaign, has become one of our greatest problems.

Without making any judgments about Hart’s qualifications for the presidency, it seems plain that imagination is one of his virtues. To read his short book, A New Democracy, is to see that his claim to new ideas is not an obvious stretcher. He may not have made them up himself, but he has absorbed them to a much greater extent than most politicians have. He breezes at an off-putting pace through individual training accounts, platoon cohesiveness, tax-based incomes policy—hardly issues that have been part of the standard Democratic litany lately—and complains about the strictures of liberalism and conservatism as they are now defined. His account of where he stands politically does not, on its face, demand contemptuous dismissal. But that’s what it got this past spring, when Hart made his run at Walter Mondale.

As soon as Hart won the New Hampshire primary, and thus became a serious threat to Mondale, Mondale began to say that Hart had no new ideas and that the phrase was just a code word for an insidious new form of conservatism. “He wrote a book about his vision of America, and you need an FBI investigator to find one word in there expressing concern about people in trouble,” Mondale told an audience in March. The following week Mondale told Myra MacPherson, of The Washington Post, “Let’s face it, Hart’s idea of ‘new’ vs. ‘old,’ that’s bull ----.” Even President Reagan weighed in. A reporter asked him what he thought of Hart’s new ideas, and he answered, “I haven’t heard anything yet that you could say was a specific idea that he’s had to say, but then I haven’t been following it that closely.” He turned to a knot of reporters standing nearby and asked, “Can anyone here tell me specifically what he’s going to do?” (Hart at that point was doing his best to prove his opponents right by following the advice of his Svengali, Pat Caddell, to keep his pitch as vague as possible. He alluded frequently to the newness of his ideas and rarely to their specifics.)

From the New Hampshire primary to the New York primary, when Hart was riding high, the press for the most part either simply recounted these criticisms or indicated its agreement with them. A few reporters—notably Robert Pear, of The New York Times, and David Maraniss, of The Washington Post—read Hart’s position papers and his book and wrote about them; among magazines, The Washington Monthly, which was founded fifteen years ago on the principle of moving beyond conventional liberalism and conservatism, and The New Republic were notable for treating Hart substantively.

Most journalists, however, slapped the phrase “new ideas” into protective custody behind quotation marks, and left it at that. Barbara Walters, of ABC News, moderating a debate among the Democratic candidates, challenged Hart to name two new ideas, and seemed surprised that he was able to do so. Newsweek said, “Hart—unlike Mondale— lacks a solid core of identifiable ideology.”The Nation said that Hart’s “most visible ‘new idea’ is the concept of new ideas itself, much as a new detergent hypes its newness and nothing else.” National Review, on this if on nothing else, agreed, in its telegraphic style: “Fascinating insight on candidacy of candidate of New Ideas: LA Times interview of voters at time of Iowa found issue of major importance . . . to Hart supporters: nothing, no issue.”

Some reporters saw Hart’s ideas not as significant in themselves but as emblematic of a deceptive character. Hart changed his name and his age; wasn’t it part of the same disorder that he would also adopt new ideas? Another interpretation, in the same spirit, was that Hart’s new ideas were a crafty play for an especially soulless special-interest group: young urban professionals, or Yuppies, as they were nicknamed. Sure, this line of reasoning went. Mondale wanted programs for teachers and for organized labor, which had endorsed him; Hart promised the Yuppies what they wanted, and got their votes in return. If he was dovish on committing American troops abroad, well, many Yuppies are old Vietnam-era draft resisters who justify their actions by continuing to insist that putting young Americans in uniform is immoral. If he wanted to cut government spending, remember, Yuppies pay a lot of taxes. “Many Yumpies (a variation: young upwardly mobile professionals] seem more interested in making money for themselves than in redistributing it to the poor,” Time explained in March.

The most obvious explanation for the hostility to Hart’s new ideas is that he materialized as a temporary front-runner seemingly out of nowhere, making everyone who was not prescient about his rise look foolish. Every recent season of presidential primaries has shown the political establishment that it was out of touch with some lode of feeling in the country, and it shouldn’t be surprising that the establishment has reacted ungraciously. But the main points of other candidates who have come out of the blue—Eugene McCarthy’s and George McGovern’s dovishness, or Ronald Reagan’s hawkishness in 1976—quickly became influential in American polities and remained so, even after the candidates fell. The system can absorb a new cause, but it can’t deal with the idea that Americans are generally unhappy with what the mainstream political camps are offering. Even though voters seemed to take seriously candidates whose messages were Hartlike pleas to forget about conventional liberalism and conservatism—Carter in 1976, Jerry Brown the same year—these candidates were portrayed by reporters and other politicians as shamans, even nuts. These reactions were colored by an unwillingness to consider whether the standard solutions to the nation’s problems might no longer work.

THESE DAYS OUR national government— both the organization and the emblem of our shared vision of the country—isn’t running very smoothly. Our hopelessness over the deficits is a sign of our inability to adjudicate among claims on the federal Treasury and of our disinclination to pay for everything we want the government to do. The evermore-bitter debates over foreign policy and the defense budget show a remarkable lack of agreement about what our role in the world should be. The huge success of Jesse Jackson’s campaign among black voters and its thorough unpopularity among whites shows how deep the gulf between the races still is, and by extension how completely contused is the issue of government as an instrument of social change. In commercial or domestic life when parties are far apart on fundamental issues, they sir down and negotiate; in politics today there is an all-powerful impulse to budge not an inch, in hopes of protecting one’s own position while wearing the other side down to submission. Why should this be?

The answer lies in two only barely overlapping cultures that together form the establishment sitting in judgment of political ideas. One culture is political professionals and reporters—in shorthand, Washington. The other is political intellectuals—roughly, New York and various exiles-from-New York scattered around the country. Both cultures are strongly wedded to the notion that new ideas in politics do not exist. Each holds this conviction for its own reasons.

Washington, its attention trained on campaigns and, in between them, on the intrigues of a few players at the top of the federal government, sees politics as a matter of tactics and technique.

This is the bias of professionals in any field (how many lawyers see their cases as fundamental battles between right and wrong?), and in politics the inclination is reinforced in a hundred small ways. A political reporter spends most of his field time interviewing pollsters, admen, and organizers who are obsessed by the ceaseless thrust and parry with their opponents; they, in turn, find their views given the force of record in the reporters’ coverage. All the players have a vested interest in the idea that in presidential politics beliefs (or, in the lingua franca, “issues”) take a back seat to organization and momentum. Looking at politics this way justifies their personal commitment to campaign life.

Outside the narrow sphere of the campaign Washington is a city of consensus. Differences of ideology inevitably dull as they travel to the capital. The few thousand people who are there because they want to serve in the high appointive posts of government mostly believe, truth to tell, that they could do these jobs well under almost any President.

Phis world chuckles quietly at the spectacle of Mondale and Hart endorsing the nuclear freeze or the transfer of the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, knowing that however much these issues please the crowds, in the White House neither man would do either. One reason that Reagan was able to take Washington by storm in his first few months in office is that Washington, utterly skeptical of ideology, was prepared for him to become a moderate and so was caught by surprise.

Conventional liberalism and conservatism are appealing as concepts in Washington not so much because they represent belief systems as because they stand for a grand and venerable division of all the constituencies in the country into two roughly equal teams. Conservatism is business, liberalism labor; conservatism the Southwest, liberalism the Northeast. It’s a fight fair enough to have been going on without a knockout for decades. In this context it’s easy to see why the emergence of the idea of Yuppies caused Washington to heave a sigh of relief. Publicly assessing new ideas on their face would be inconvenient for the political professionals. For candidates this would mean abandoning the quick rhetorical salvos that bring coverage on the evening news. For reporters it would strain the conventions of objective journalism and possibly require leaving the reassuringly frenetic daily routine of the campaign—the bus—to research something like tax policy. When Yuppies came along, new ideas could be understood at the level of tactics rather than at the level of substance, as an appeal to a constituency rather than as a set of policies.

IN THE INTELLECTUAL world ideas matter a great deal—so much that new ideas look like piddling technical matters that only distract attention from what is truly important. The political-intellectual culture today still revolves around two grand battles that have been raging for a good fifty years: one over the scope of the welfare state in America and the other, much bigger, over the Soviet Union’s intentions and role in the world. Both began during the Depression and were incubated at Columbia and City College of New York and in countless parlors and lecture halls and speeches and articles; both have survived endless permutations. In fact, many of the original combatants are in their seventies and eighties and are still arguing.

These arguments are important; politics needs a framework. But the unfortunate result is a tendency to view each new political issue as only a soldier in the great war of ideas or, even worse, to crowd out discussion of new issues entirely. Next to vast and fundamental concerns that seem to encompass all of the world in their sweep, the things Hart talks about are dwarfed. They’re quibbles. Why, when questions of the freedom or enslavement of the West, of the very survival of the human race, are at hand, let attention stray to the quotidian details of the workings of government? What matters is which side you’re on.

This way of thinking when applied to the question of the welfare state leads to the attitude that one is either for it or against it and that all positions in between are sophistry. So anyone who points out the excesses of a program like Social Security, Medicare, or the federal employees’ pension plan seems to be picking away at a delicately constructed edifice that could topple entirely. To say that Social Security is a socially and economically inefficient way of helping the elderly is, in this view, really an attack on the minimum wage and food stamps too. Liberals will remind you that each program in the whole panoply of social legislation triumphed over ardent opposition when it was first passed. The arguments against each one — that it would bankrupt the government, foster dependence, and so on—have always been the same, they say. And if you legitimized those arguments by taking them seriously, rhe nation would quickly revert to the policies of the Coolidge Administration.

Although the size of the deficit has given more urgency to the old arguments about the government’s going bankrupt, the attitude is that one must never weaken, never turn on old friends—the answer must be in cutting defense or, for the conservative, in cutting welfare. Political intellectuals on the left and the right who privately acknowledge that middle-class entitlement programs are a problem usually counsel public silence, on the grounds that the millions upon millions of retirees (a high-voter-turnout group) must be kept happy so that they will be allies in some larger struggle. Conservatives believe that tinkering with Social Security will turn retirees against tax cuts and defense spending, causes they don’t now actively oppose. Liberals say that the slight intellectual sin of pretending that all social-welfare programs are the same is pardonable because it gives the poor a powerful ally in the retirees. (Reagan neatly undermined this theory in his first six months in office by passing huge cuts in programs aimed at the poor but retracting the major reductions he wanted in Social Security payments to early retirees.)

The debate over the Soviet Union is even more heated and subordinates all other political concerns. Fifteen years ago the neoconservative movement’s defining publication was The Public Interest. known for its skeptical, detailed articles about government programs. Now neoconservatism revolves around Commentary, where the preoccupation is foreign policy, and the lineage from the Old Left’s intramural battles of the thirties is plain. One will not read Commentary for many months without being reminded of which American liberals were Soviet apologists in the thirties. The intellectuals on the other side of the Soviet question have an equally long memory—the Hiss and Rosenberg cases are still, thirty years and much damning evidence later, among the Stations of the Cross, and those who weren’t around for them find redemption by being obsessed anyway. The left and the right argue over nuclear war, conventional war, foreign relations, the federal budget, and even the movies in the context of how expansionist, howuntrustworthy, and how evil the Soviets are, and how as a result we must behave. It’s a closed system that doesn’t admit to the existence of issues that can’t be discussed in its terms.

Mondale and Reagan stand on opposite sides of these fifty-vear-old great divides, but each of them gives the impression of being instinctively hostile to the idea that the country might look at its government afresh, with an eye to what works and what doesn’t. Both men came of age politically in the late forties, when the ideological battles of the thirties were being rejoined after the hiatus of the war. Both were active in liberal organizations that underwent bitter internal splits over the all-consuming issue of communism—in Mondale’s case the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota, where he was a young volunteer, and in Reagan’s the Screen Actors Guild. Mondale came down on the side of liberal welfare-state anticommunism and has stayed there; Reagan within a few years had taken the anticommunist path to conservatism, where he has staunchly remained.

Both men seem impatient with evidence that any of their long-cherished views might be wrong. Reagan, asked in a press conference about the latest in a steady stream of reports showing that poor people are worse off now than at the start of his Administration, said, “There’s absolutely no truth in it. It’s probably the most glaring example of political demagoguery that our friends have been engaging in.” Mondale, when the Reagan landslide was still new and it looked as if Edward Kennedy would be his main opponent in the 1984 primaries, went through a well-publicized search for new ideas (he explicitly used the dreaded phrase) that culminated in a story in The New York Times Magazine called “The Re-education of Walter Mondale.” In speeches he called for cuts in federal spending and taxes. But after Kennedy took himself out of the race, that phase was quickly forgotten and Mondale returned to his natural role as a defender of liberalism. Asked in a debate this year about another widely agreed-upon point, the excessive generosity of the federal pension system, Mondale dismissed it by saying, “The last few years public employees have been made the scapegoat in this country. The fact of it is, they’re entitled to pensions and retirement too.” At the moment neither Mondale nor Reagan has any plan to reduce the federal deficit during the next presidential term bymore than half.

A COMMON CRITICISM of the impulse to stray out of the liberal and conservative pens is that it’s ahistorical, in the sense that it ignores both the lessons of mid-twentieth-century American history and the eternal verities of civilization. The answer to the charge is to stand it on its head: entrenched liberals and conservatives ignore the obvious lesson of American history that change is a constant. Both liberals and conservatives are in their own way enslaved by the dubious proposition—dubious especially in this capitalist, democratic, and therefore extremely fluid country—that the realities shaping the activities of government are not evolving significantly and haven’t evolved since the New Deal and the Hitler-Stalin pact. But half an hour spent with a census book will tell you that America has changed as much in the past generation as in any other—it has become suburbanized, gotten vastly more affluent and better educated, declined industrially while booming economically, suffered from internal ills and external enemies unknown before the Second World War. Even since 1970, population migrations and the tremendous shock waves of the OPEC price increases have remade virtually every part of American life. It makes no sense that the frame of reference for politics should be set in concrete.

As circumstances change, government changes too, both in response to circumstances and according to its own self-generated imperatives. Consequently, the turn of mind that’s most needed and most scarce today is empiricism. To speak with authority about politics and government, it is necessary to go out in the field and see what’s going on. And there a new weapons system is not a signal of national resolve or lack thereof but a piece of machinery that either works or doesn’t. The idea that the welfare system creates dependency isn’t inherently correct or incorrect, and talking about it isn’t inherently courageous or cruel— the point is whether it is borne out by reality. No subject should be off limits to discussion. Though lack of context can be a danger, so can context so overwhelming that it turns every issue into an abstraction.

The great shortcoming of empiricists is the tendency to have many particular views but no great cause under which to unite them for both intellectual and electoral purposes. Jimmy Carter’s four years as President are a classic demonstration of this, and today empiricists seem to many people to be purely technical, devoid of fundamental values, and unwilling to think about how to sell their ideas to a majority of the voters. The political consultant Robert Squier, writing about the Mondale-Hart race, said, “It is a struggle between the programmatic and the pragmatic, between those who would reassert the old values of understanding and compassion and an active federal role to guarantee the general welfare, and those who see themselves not as custodians of a political philosophy but as problem solvers.”

But there is a cause that underlies all the particulars: the restoration of a sense of community in the nation. The United States is a precious and noble enterprise. It makes the heart ache to see us begin to go through some of the familiar motions of national decline, devoting fantastic energies to protecting political turf, falling into a rhetoric of recapturing a fondly remembered past, disbursing the government’s benefits according to the strength rather than the need of the claimants.

IT IS CHARACTERISTIC of times like these that people seek refuge in the rock-hard position of some group or other. As the groups become more powerful, the political system as a whole makes less and less sense. It becomes ever harder to draw people out of the certitude and xenophobia of their groups. Politicians become convinced that they must appeal to each constituency on its own ground. And this fragmentation of politics inevitably spills over into every other part of life.

To regain a sense of community requires an underlying set of political values and a means of assembling a majority around them, but these goals are much less elusive than most people think. Franklin Roosevelt, the professed idol of both Mondale and Reagan, showed dramatically how voters can be drawn into new alliances by calling forth some broader spirit in them (as Reagan himself showed in 1980). When Roosevelt died, poor blacks and poor whites in the South, blood enemies for fifty years and more, stood crying as they watched the train carrying his body back to Washington. And Roosevelt put together his majority in a country far less in agreement on political values than we are today.

All the presidential candidates this year have pledged allegiance to having a strong defense, caring for the poor, encouraging entrepreneurship. In electoral politics, if not in intellectual debate, the arguments that are most bitter and that have pulled us furthest apart are over self-interest, not beliefs.

The only way to persuade Americans to drop their automatic suspicion of every camp but their own is to create a politics more dedicated to curiosity and honesty than to maintaining position. If we can look at government straight on and convey the plain truth about what it does, if we can consider things anew and argue about them freely, then perhaps we can solve our problems instead of denying their existence. Right now the political establishment is stubbornly resistant to that course. It ought to lead the march, or at least get out of the way.

—Nicholas Lemann