A review of The Gentleman from New York: Daniel Patrick Moynihan—A Biography, by Godfrey Hodgson
and Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics, by Robert G. Kaufman
The primary political achievement of Bill Clinton, we are told even by such sensible observers as Norman Podhoretz, is that he pulled the Democratic Party "back to the center." This, Clinton himself told us eight years ago, is what being a "New Democrat" is all about. However, when the careers and outlooks of the two "Old Democrats" treated in these biographies are recalled, it becomes evident that the centrist New Democrat motif is another Clintonian inversion of reality. It was the genuine "new" Democrats—remember "the new politics"—of the 1960s and 1970s who corrupted the Democratic Party and who deliberately marginalized "old" Democrats such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry "Scoop" Jackson.
Scoop Jackson died suddenly of a ruptured aorta in 1983, within hours of learning of the Soviet Union shooting down the civilian airline flight KAL 007—a coincidence his biographer passes over without comment. Jackson's own political prospects had long been in eclipse by that time. Moynihan's tortuous and curious political career has ended with a whimper, and his Senate seat turned over, without a whimper, to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who represents everything about post-sixties liberalism that Moynihan has reproached throughout his public life. Yet, Moynihan survived as long as he did only because of his accommodation to liberal Democratic partisanship (which means the partisanship of "the new politics"), such as voting in lockstep with his fellow Democrats in the matter of Clinton's impeachment even though he had described Clinton's actions as constituting "a crisis of the regime." Herein lies the central riddle of Moynihan: how can a person with such clear insight into the failures of contemporary liberalism nonetheless cast his lot with it?
Intellectually, Moynihan might well be thought of as the Forrest Gump of modern politics. He has seemingly been in the middle of every major political controversy for 35 years, but like Forrest Gump, many critics have doubted whether he fully understood what was going on around him. Yet few can claim a more prescient vision. He predicted back in 1965 that the increase of single-mother households and illegitimacy would bring social disaster in our cities. He told Richard Nixon in 1969 that women's rights would be the emerging issue of the 1970s. He was one of only two people—the other was Ronald Reagan—who predicted in the early 1980s that the Soviet Union was headed the way of the Dodo bird. "The defining event of the decade," he wrote in 1980, "might well be the breakup of the Soviet Union."
A product of New Deal liberalism, Moynihan remained to the last a champion of government activism, which is why conservatives remained wary of him. Yet his intellectual clarity about liberalism's social failures also led many liberals—especially the Clintons—to keep him at arm's length, as well. Moynihan's thoughtful reflections about the limitations of politics and social policy are evidence that he can indeed learn from mistakes. "In the early 1960s in Washington," Moynihan has reflected, "we thought we could do anything. The central psychological proposition of liberalism is that for every problem there is a solution." Early on Moynihan came to understand the "fatal flaw" of liberalism: "Wishing so many things so," he wrote 30 years ago, "we all too readily come to think them not only possible, which they very likely are, but also near at hand, which is seldom the case."
Why "seldom the case"? Because human nature and human society are more complicated and less susceptible to easy government remedies than our optimistic liberalism had led us to believe. But when the news started coming in during the mid-1960s that our problems were not going to be easily solved with another billion dollar program, many liberals reacted badly, often lashing out at the messenger. "Liberalism faltered when it turned out it could not cope with truth," Moynihan observed.
Even as liberalism began to experience its harsh limits in the 1960s, the rising generational revolt spawned a new political culture, apocalyptic in tone, "that rewarded the articulation of moral purpose more than the achievement of practical good." To the morally pure mind of the protest left in the 1960s, if you expressed any doubt about immediately ending poverty, racism, and war, you were a Bad Person. This was when the "politics of personal destruction" began. Liberalism came, in Moynihan's words, to have "the ability to immediately dissolve every statement of fact into a question of motive." Moynihan himself was one of the first victims of this new political culture, even though he has never stopped trying to refine social policy to serve liberal ends.
In practical everyday terms, the politics of personal destruction means not only that you will demonize your opponents in the most personal way ("Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"), but that you rule out compromise with the opposition. The Clintons brought this attitude with them to Washington. Clinton could have had comprehensive health care reform in 1994 if he had been willing to compromise with Republicans in Congress. But Clinton wouldn't even compromise with Moynihan, who was then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. In Clinton's very first week in office, a senior White House aide commented in Time magazine about Moynihan: "He's not one of us…we'll roll right over him if we have to."
"He's not one of us." That pretty much tells the whole story. Godfrey Hodgson's well-crafted and highly readable biography does not, unfortunately, attempt to solve the riddle of Moynihan's split personality. The best he can offer is that Moynihan is a melancholy Irishman with a bleeding heart. That Moynihan may lack the courage of his convictions is a hypothesis too embarrassing for Hodgson to contemplate.
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The case of Scoop Jackson is more straightforward but even more disheartening. Jackson can be seen as the heir to the Truman tradition of liberal anti-Communism, and he became perhaps the most effective Senate critic of arms control and détente. For this, he earned the deep enmity of the Left, dooming his prospects of winning the Democratic nomination for President, which he sought twice. Yet even he made his accommodations with the Left. Although he had been a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War, when the final crisis came in 1975 Jackson threw in his lot with the congressional liberals who cut off funding for Vietnam's self-defense, an act of political cowardice he thought necessary to keep his hopes alive in the 1976 presidential race, which he lost anyway. His biographer Robert Kaufman slides over this unfortunate blot on Jackson's foreign policy career, making him sound like Moses to Ronald Reagan's Joshua on Cold War politics.
Kaufman is better at explaining what it was that kept Jackson from defecting from the Democratic Party, even though Jackson was as horrified as Moynihan at the ruin that "the new politics" had wrought. (Here it should be mentioned that many key Reagan appointees came from the staffs of Jackson and Moynihan, such as Richard Perle and Elliott Abrams. Abrams, in fact, at one point in 1979 tried to persuade Moynihan that he should be Ronald Reagan's running mate.) Jackson was a labor union-loving, near-socialist on questions of political economy. Kaufman gently acknowledges that Jackson had "a fundamental misunderstanding of markets." So even though Jackson detested Jimmy Carter, he declined invitations to endorse Reagan in the 1980 campaign, a step which would likely have been rewarded with an offer to be Secretary of State or Defense in the first Reagan administration. Instead, he ended up lost in the shadows as the Reagan team adopted many of Jackson's themes.
If there were an authentic centrism to today's "New Democrats," it would involve reviving the stature of "old" Democrats such as Moynihan and Jackson. But this is not happening. Jackson and Moynihan were part of an attempt in the mid-1970s to bring the Democratic Party "back to the center" after the McGovern debacle. It was called the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM). It failed to move Jackson (whom Moynihan supported in 1976) anywhere near the nomination, and had no influence on the Carter administration. CDM submitted 53 names to Carter for possible foreign policy appointments; they got one-—trade envoy to Micronesia. "Not even Macronesia!" was Moynihan's bitter complaint. Carter's pollster Pat Caddell dimissed the CDM as a force among Democrats: "It isn't a wing; it's a feather." "The Carter administration froze us out completely," observed Elliott Abrams, then serving as an aide to Moynihan. "That demonstrated to all of us that the Democratic Party was a McGovernite party."
CDM was succeeded in the 1990s by the more long-lasting and ostensibly more successful Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). One wonders, though, whether the DLC hasn't succumbed to the same political weakness that undid Moynihan and Jackson. At the conclusion of the Jackson biography, published early last summer, Kaufman wonders whether there are any successors to Jackson. There is one, Kaufman predicts: the current chairman of the DLC, Sen. Joseph Lieberman. "Lieberman may someday emerge as Jackson's true heir in the U.S. Senate," Kaufman muses. "His political perspective largely mirrors that of Henry Jackson: a liberal on domestic issues, an opponent of Affirmative Action; a staunch advocate of vigilant internationalism and a strong military. Sen. Lieberman confessed, however, that it will be an uphill battle 'to reinvigorate the international aspects of the Jackson legacy in the Democratic Party.'" As we saw in campaign 2000, it turned out to be an uphill fight to reinvigorate the Jackson legacy in the soul of Joe Lieberman.