“It is Tory men with Liberal principles who have enlarged democracy” wrote Daniel Patrick Moynihan to President Richard Nixon on August 29, 1969. Moynihan, then Nixon’s Counselor of Urban Affairs, compared the new president to Benjamin Disraeli, the influential 19th century British Prime Minister. He was making sense of Nixon’s “New Federalism,” the Republican plan to move power from Washington back to the states.
Moynihan, a prominent Democrat, left his Harvard teaching position to work on Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan. This ambitious piece of legislation, modeled on the conservative economist Milton Friedman’s negative income tax, proposed sending cash payments to poor people. It would minimize the bloated federal bureaucracy and make drastic changes to programs such as Medicaid, Food Stamps, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children. If enacted, recipients would have to work or receive job training in order to receive $1,600 annually.
But Nixon couldn’t get the legislation through a Democratic Congress. Moynihan spent two years working on the FAP before returning to Harvard.
By this time, people began questioning Moynihan’s political allegiance. Had he become a “neo-conservative?” The term, which Moynihan resisted throughout his professional life, fit the academic. After all, Moynihan came into national prominence as a young member of the Johnson Labor Department when he questioned Washington’s ability to bring about racial equality. In 1965 he issued a report entitled “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action” which argued that the breakup of black families was the chief obstacle to racial equality and black advancement.
The document, which quickly became known as The Moynihan Report, linked one parent households with a rise in delinquency, drug-use, and educational drop-outs. Its author also noted that black welfare continued to increase, even as unemployment fell.
To combat this, Moynihan supported increased jobs training and housing assistance, greater access to birth-control, and affirmative action. He helped write LBJ’s famous Howard University address, which demanded “equality of results” in addition to “equality of opportunity.”
A firestorm erupted as the Howard University speech was being drafted. The press learned of the Moynihan Report, and liberals across the country blasted its author. Civil Rights leaders accused him of racism and said he was guilty of “blaming the victim.” The Johnson Administration immediately distanced itself from Moynihan. The assistant labor secretary became persona-non-grata. Shortly thereafter, he resigned in disgrace and moved to New York City.
Five years later, while serving in Nixon’s White House, Moynihan stepped into racial hot-water again when one of his memos leaked to the New York Times. The infamous January 16, 1970, memo chronicled the great strides blacks had made in the 1960s: income had increased(a third of blacks earned $8,000 in 1968 while only 15% earned that amount in 1960; blacks—outside the South— had achieved income parity with Caucasians. Moynihan said that too much time had been spent talking about race during the recent past; the conversation was now dominated by “hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides”. Racial progress would continue and racial relations “could benefit from a period of benign neglect.”
Some liberals would never trust Moynihan again. Working with Nixon made him suspect. His politically incorrect rhetoric on race sealed his guilt in the eyes of many on the Left. By 1971, Moynihan had returned to Harvard, happy to resume his academic career and eager to write a book about the Family Assistance Plan. “The Politics of Guaranteed Income: The Nixon Administration and the Family Assistance Plan” blamed liberals for the FAP’s failure. Some thought it was his best book.
Moynihan taught in Cambridge for the next two years and stayed out of Democratic politics. Some thought he was a man without a political home. Moynihan remained silent throughout the1972 campaign. He looked on in dismay as the Party selected George McGovern as their presidential nominee. Ultimately he cast his vote for Nixon’s re-election.
Shortly thereafter, his old boss asked Moynihan to serve as U.S. ambassador to India. The professor took another leave from Harvard and moved to New Delhi. There he watched Watergate unfold.
As Watergate captivated America, the ambassador noted how liberals had always given Nixon a bum rap. After all, it was the Republican president who consolidated and advanced Great Society reforms. The Environmental Protection Agency was created under his watch; he proposed national health insurance; his Family Assistance Plan would have guaranteed income for the needy. But Democrats had seen him as the enemy for a quarter century. He would always be a Red Hunter and a Right Winger because of his involvement with the Alger Hiss Case when the Californian was a young congressman. The Left would never trust Nixon and opposed his liberal, domestic initiatives.
There was a lot in Nixon that Moynihan admired. The professor compared him to Disraeli with good reason: like his Tory predecessor, Nixon was a reformer who used government to both strengthen and bolster his country.
But hubris led to Nixon’s downfall. The president resigned in August 1974. Moynihan stayed on through the transition to Gerald Ford. The new president called him back to Washington and asked him to serve as the Librarian of Congress. Moynihan demurred. Ford then asked him to become the American representative at the United Nations.
In New York he made a name for himself speaking up for human rights and opposing the Soviet Union. He penned an influential essay for Commentary entitled “The U.S. In Opposition,” that detailed the growing anti-Americanism of the international body. He also became a defender of Israel, defending the Jewish state against a UN Resolution which equated Zionism with Racism. Moynihan declared: “the United States… does not acknowledge, it will not abide by, it will never acquiesce in this infamous act.”
That speech forever endeared him to New York Jews, who played an influential role the next year when Moynihan decided to make a run for the U.S. Senate. He ran as an FDR Democrat and a proud representative of the working classes. For over a decade, he felt the Party had ignored this part of their coalition. A July 1968 letter to Ted Kennedy detailed this sentiment: “the people of South Boston and Dorchester…are your people. They have been abandoned and our politics are very much the worse for it.”
All three New York City newspapers endorsed Moynihan. The candidate believed his “neoconservative” label helped him secure the Times endorsement over his chief primary rival, Bella Abzug, the feminist congresswoman. Abzug famously said: a woman’s place is in the House: the House of Representatives.
Moynihan squeaked out a 10,000 vote primary victory over Abzug. He defeated Conservative incumbent James Buckley in the November general election.
He entered the Senate as a Scoop Jackson Democrat and laid out his perspective on foreign policy in a 1979 letter to constituents. The U.S. must stand for liberty and defend human rights around the world; it must defend our allies and stand firm against our enemies.
Many considered this position neo-conservative. Moynihan continued to reject this description, but made light of it in a note to Punch Sulzberger, the New York Times publisher. In response to the paper’s description of him as a neo-con, Moynihan quipped: “inasmuch as a neoconservative is a liberal who votes for the defense budget, it is possible to clarify the whole matter for your readers by describing such persons as patriots.”
But he moved Left during his first term. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) gave him a 47 rating in 1979; three years later, when he was up for re-election, they gave him a 95 rating. National Review’s Jay Nordlinger attributed that to his 1976 primary battle. Moynihan feared a challenge from the Left throughout his career and learned to stay in-line with the Times’ editorial board. William F. Buckley agreed: “Daniel Patrick Moynihan didn’t win four elections in New York by stressing the desirability of school vouchers, or the tragedy of black family disintegration.”
Moynihan was proud of his move to the Left. He pointed out that National Journal named him the most liberal senator of the 97th Congress (1981-1983) and noted his perfect record from the League of Women Voters.
His constituents certainly didn’t seem to mind his political transition. He cruised to re-election in 1982, winning by 1.5 million votes and earning 65.6% of the vote. Six years later he did even better: winning 68.3% of the vote and carrying 61 of the state’s 62 counties. He earned a comfortable victory in his final election during the Republican Revolution of 1994: Moynihan won by 610,182 votes, the highest margin of victory for any Senate Democrat that year.
Throughout his congressional career, he remained a nemesis to Republicans. Though he agreed with Ronald Reagan that the Soviet Union would collapse, predicting its demise in a 1979 Newsweek essay, he was a thorn in the Gipper’s side. Moynihan, according to his liberal critic Jacob Weisberg, “found his voice in opposition.” He thought Reagan’s foreign policy was misguided: he voted against U.S. military action in Grenada, claimed the CIA’s operation in Nicaragua violated international law, and deplored the missile build-up against the Soviet Union.
Unlike Republicans (who insisted the Soviets remained an existential threat), Moynihan believed the Soviet Union was in serious decline and no longer threatened America. He argued the U.S.S.R. faced numerous ethnic challenges, from the Uzbeks, the Tajiks, and the Georgians in addition to trouble spots behind the Iron Curtain: notably Yugoslavia and Poland. He repeatedly noted that American intelligence was faulty at best: in his eyes, the CIA was completely caught off-the-mark with its estimation of Soviet capabilities. In a December 1988 letter to his constituents, he remarked that the Soviets economy had stagnated throughout the Brezhnev era (1964-1982) and while they had great military power, with Brezhnev’s passing, they would no longer use it (Brezhnev famously sent tanks into Czechoslovakia to quell the Prague Spring in 1968. He later issued the Brezhnev doctrine, which stated that the USSR would involve militarily to combat counter-revolutionary movements anywhere in Eastern Europe). Gorbachev’s ascendancy ended the Cold War: the new Soviet leader admitted his country could no longer afford its military commitments.
America won the Cold War and remained the world’s only super-power. A new age dawned and Moynihan suggested the U.S. make fundamental changes in its foreign policy. Henceforth, the U.S. should put a greater emphasis on international law and use the United Nations to solve global challenges. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the senator urged President George H.W. Bush to impose sanctions against the Iraqi leader, rather than lead the country into war. This alternative offered a “kinder, gentler” alternative to violence. He commended the president’s rhetoric, which called for collective security and international law, but argued Bush still operated from a Cold War mind-set: us versus them, whoever they might be. Far from a hawkish position, Moynihan had moved comfortably into the mainstream of Democratic foreign policy as a traditional liberal internationalist.
But Moynihan spent most of his time focused on domestic matters. He became a champion of welfare reform. During his time as a Nixon adviser, he called welfare “a bankrupt and destructive system.” He pushed through the 1988 Family Support Act, the first time Congress addressed welfare since its inception. Moynihan was proud of this accomplishment, but critics claimed it did little to solve the problem. Jacob Weisberg argued that there were too many loopholes in the legislation. Though it aimed to tie welfare to work, welfare actually rose as a result of the bill.
Perhaps his pride in the 1988 FSA bill explains why Moynihan became such a vocal critic of the 1996 Personal Responsibility Act. Republican majorities in Congress passed this welfare reform legislation two times to President Bill Clinton’s desk. Two times Clinton vetoed it. Republicans passed it a third time. Clinton’s advisor Dick Morris, the man responsible for Clinton’s triangulation—Clinton’s shift to the center after the the shellacking Democrats took in the 1994 midterm elections— urged the president to sign the bill. Clinton finally agreed.
No one decried this act more than New York’s senior senator. Moynihan declared it would throw thousands of children into the street and destroy the social safety net. In fact, the legislation became a hallmark of the Clinton presidency. It signaled that the end of the big government era.
Moynihan’s senatorial career was also nearing its conclusion. The 72 year old declared he would not seek a fifth term and left public life in January 2001. During his final days in office, commentators began putting his senatorial career in perspective. Jacob Weisberg may have penned the most devastating critique. He wrote a ten page essay in the New York Times Magazine and concluded Moynihan’s time in the Senate was “long on concepts and short on concrete results.”
Indeed it was. The New Yorker’s four terms coincided with the end of New Deal liberalism and the rejection of Great Society initiatives. Weisberg noted how ironic it was that Bill Clinton (a man loathed by conservatives) moved the party consistently to the Right, while Moynihan, long heralded by conservatives like Bill Buckley and Norman Podhoretz, fought him all the way.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s spent four decades in public life. Thanks to Steven R. Weisman, who went through his papers (more than 10,000 pages worth,) we have the man’s private words and thoughts from the time he was a young man in John Kennedy’s “New Frontier” until he was retired, and out of public life.
He remained a believer in activist government until the end, though he was always aware of the limitations and unintended consequences of social policy. Through it all, he was a Tory man with liberal principles.