Friday, November 19, 2010

Looking for civic virtue

Now that the election is over we have to face the reality of what it means. Having spent the last two years pursuing maximum feasible obstruction, the Republicans in Congress now have the possibility of making things much worse. Early indications suggest that they will do so. Senator John Kyl of Arizona has suddenly decided to pull the plug on the START Treaty with Russia, which calls both for deep cuts and for inspections, claiming that the Obama Administration hasn't shown enough commitment to modernization of our nuclear forces (on which the Administration is willing to spend $10 billion a year!) or to missile defense, one sacred Republican cow that the President has been willing at least to downgrade. This has brought outrage from older Republicans like Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Richard Lugar, but not, as far as I can see, from a single Republican Boomer politician. In fact this obviously seems to reflect the broader strategy, already enunciated by minority leader Mitch McConnell, of denying the President any successes at all in order to doom any hope of his re-election. As such it represents perhaps the most irresponsible foreign policy stance of my adult lifetime.

Once again some history is in order. Harry Truman and the Democrats in 1946 suffered a Congressional defeat even more devastating than this one, since they lost the Senate as well as the House. So low was Truman's personal standing that a Democrat, Senator J. William Fulbright, publicly suggested that Truman appoint a Republican Secretary of State--who would under existing law be next in line for the White House--and resign. The election had turned on domestic issues, led by inflation, a reaction against organized labor, and, among the Republican base, a chance at long last to take on the New Deal without the intimidating presence of Franklin Roosevelt. Overseas, however, trouble was looming in Europe, where a hard winter was crippling already devastated economies and Communist parties were growing in strength. Several days after the election Truman held a press conference. Here was his opening statement.

THE PRESIDENT. [1.] Gentlemen, I have a statement for you, which I will read to you. Then it will be handed to you in mimeographed form as soon as the conference is over.

"The American people have elected a Republican majority to the Senate and to the House of Representatives. Under our Constitution the Congress is the law-making body. The people have chosen to entrust the controlling voice in this branch of our Government to the Republican party. I accept their verdict in the spirit which all good citizens accept the result of any fair election.

"At the same time, and under the same Constitution, the duties and responsibilities of the Chief Executive and the executive branch of the Government are entrusted to me and my associates.

"Our Government is founded upon the constitutional principle that the three branches of the Government are independent of each other. Under this principle our country has prospered and grown great. I should be less than candid, however, if I omitted to state that the present situation threatens serious difficulties.

"Only by the exercise of wisdom and restraint and the constant determination to place the interests of our country above all other interests, can we meet and solve the problems ahead of us.

"The stake is large. Our great internal strength and our eminent position in the world are not, as some may too easily assume, indestructible.

"I shall devote all my energy to the discharge of my duty with a full realization of the responsibility which results from the present state of affairs. I do not claim for myself and my associates greater devotion to the welfare of our Nation than I ascribe to others of another party. We take the same oath of office. We have at one time or another been equally willing to offer our lives in the defense of our country. I shall proceed, therefore, in the belief that the members of the Congress will discharge their duties with a full realization of their responsibility.

"Inevitably, issues will arise between the President and the Congress. When this occurs, we must examine our respective positions with stern and critical analysis to exclude any attempt to tamper with the public interest in order to achieve personal or partisan advantage.

"The change in the majority in the Congress does not alter our domestic or foreign interests or problems. In foreign affairs we have a well-charted course to follow. Our foreign policy has been developed and executed on a bi-partisan basis. I have done my best to strengthen and extend this practice. Members of both parties in and out of the Congress have participated in the inner council in preparing, and in actually carrying out, the foreign policies of our Government. It has been a national and not a party program. It will continue to be a national program in so far as the Secretary of State and I are concerned. I firmly believe that our Republican colleagues who have worked intelligently and cooperatively with us in the past will continue to do so in the future.

"My concern is not about those in either party who know the seriousness of the problems which confront us in our foreign affairs. Those who share great problems are united and not divided by them. My concern is lest any in either party should seek in this field an opportunity to achieve personal notoriety or partisan advantage by exploitation of the sensational or by the mere creation of controversy.

"We are set upon a hard course. An effort by either the executive or the legislative branch of the Government to embarrass the other for partisan gain would bring frustration to our country. To follow the course with honor to ourselves and with benefit to our country, we must look beyond and above ourselves and our party interests for the true bearing.

"As President of the United States, I am guided by a simple formula: to do in all cases, from day to day, without regard to narrow political considerations, what seems to me to be best for the welfare of all our people. Our search for that welfare must always be based upon a progressive concept of government.

"I shall cooperate in every proper manner with members of the Congress, and my hope and prayer is that this spirit of cooperation will be reciprocated.

"To them, one and all, I pledge faith with faith, and a promise to meet good will with good will."

It is sufficiently depressing, I think, to imagine President Obama making a similar statement or taking the time to read it on camera. Our sound-bite culture, alas, does not seem to allow for such a pungent, yet thorough, exploration of the difficulties before us. Truman, not known for his eloquence, struck the right note. But what is even more remarkable is that it worked.

The Republicans carried out their wish to put a dent in the New Deal. In particular, they passed the Taft-Hartley Law, rolling back significant labor gains and forcing Communists out of leadership positions in unions, over Truman's veto. The Republican led House Un-American Activities Committee kicked off the purge of Hollywood and exposed Alger Hiss, making the careeer of freshman Congressman Richard Nixon. But that same Congress passed the Truman doctrine in the spring of 1947 and, more critically, the Marshall Plan a year later. Bipartisan foreign policy became a fairly settled principle, and in fact, American cold war strategy was rarely more sensible than in the years from 1947 to 1950.

It is against this background that Republican threats against the START Treaty are so depressing. To reject it will in effect repudiate our own obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty--specifically, to work towards the elimination of nuclear weapons--just when we are trying to keep it alive vis-a-vis Iran. This morning I heard that Senator McConnell had called for the extension of the Bush tax cuts as a top priority, and perhaps the Administration can make a deal to cave in on that front--as it evidently intends to do--in exchange for ratification. Yet I am not hopeful. The Republican leadership seems determined to make the government as unworkable as possible for as long as a Democrat remains in the White House.


Anonymous said...

Amitai Etzioni
University Professor and Professor of International
Affairs, GW University :

The White House still does not get it.

Author Richard Wolffe, who was given special
access to the Obama White House for his book
"Revival," reports that there is a divide in the administration between "survivalists" - those who believe that any policy victory is better than none at
all, and who are comfortable with Washington deal-
making - and "revivalists," those who seek a return
to the outsider, anti-Washington spirit of the 2008

Neither will get the Demos very far. Making deals,
especially with hard-nosed Republican dealing with soft touch Obama, provides no vision for the
voters, has no narrative.

Running as outsider from the White House is a nice
trick but kind of difficult to pull off. One thing you
can rely on: if the Democrats will not come up with
a coherent and substantive message - nobody will
get it.

Peter said...

Thank you for this perspective on the current [s]imapasse[/s] situation.

It is not at all obvious to younger people like me (born in the 1970s) that these roads have been charted before.

What is obvious, though, is that actions have consequences, and cynical extortion usually winds up working in the end. But I suppose it has mostly always been like that.

Gerald Meaders said...


Many thanks for this commentary.

It was one of the disasters of the Cold War that American ideological opposition to plan rational government, and ultimately now ostensibly to any government, resulted from it.

(Yet, when a 'no-government' party gets into power, there will certainly not be no government.)

Just at that time, mid century,in spite of every urge for renewed laissez faire arrangements both for commercial and for cold war strategy, modern technology and social and business organization were tending to render laissez faire itself obsolete.

People like E H Carr, as I recall, had even thought they had seen its nadir in the 20s.

However, Americans are still, ideologically, blindly, fighting Am-Comm Quixotic laissez faire battles,

even with the international 'market access deal world'(planned markets) handwriting long on the wall, and with the Cold War having been fought with unilateral market concessions for decades.

I went back and reread the October 30 2004 post again.

all the best,