Things Fall Apart

The past month has been the nadir of the Obama administration. The U.S.lost its AAA credit rating; American forces suffered their worst day in Afghanistan; and President Obama was forced to sign a debt deal that included no tax increases on the rich. The president’s poll numbers went below 40%. Only 26% support his handling of the economy.

Mr. Obama spent this week on a bus tour through the Midwest rallying support for his policies and reassuring Americans that he has a plan to fix the ailing economy. Instead of offering concrete solutions to fix the economy, the president offered excuses.

He said bad luck caused the weak economy, blaming its recent downturn on the Arab Spring, Japanese tsunami and the European debt crisis. He lashed out at Republicans, extolling them to put the country first and set politics aside. He announced a new economic plan would be unveiled in September.

Three years ago candidate Obama came through Iowa offering hope and change. That message helped elevate him to the White House. This week voters heard a president grasping at straws, unable to find solutions that will get the country back to work. He looked tired, angry, and in need of a break. Thursday he flew off to Martha’s Vineyard for a 10 day vacation, his presidency in tatters.

This is not the first time we’ve witnessed a liberal crack-up. It might just be the quickest.

Conservatives have seen Hillsdale History Professor Paul Rahe’s prescience. Rahe, reassuring depressed conservatives following the 2008 campaign, said: Fear not. Barack Obama’s administration will resuscitate conservatism. His election “was a gift to the friends of liberty.”

That seemed absurd two and a half years ago when Barack Obama came into office. Democrats were ascendant. They controlled Congress and the White House for the first time since 1994. President Obama looked poised to usher in a new progressive era.

The Republican Party was in disarray following the Bush presidency. Some thought conservatism was intellectually exhausted following eight years of rule; Sam Tanenhaus claimed it was dead.

Prognosticators said the same thing after the 1964 election, when conservative Barry Goldwater suffered a humiliating defeating in the presidential election. New York Times columnist Scotty Reston said Goldwater had wrecked his party. The Los Angeles Times said conservative reactionaries would make the GOP a minority party for years to come.

Liberalism looked supreme. Lyndon Johnson had a mandate and used it to build his Great Society. Three years later, his poll numbers were in the tank and he announced he would not seek another term. Twelve years after that, liberalism had become widely discredited and conservatives had their first man in the White House since Calvin Coolidge

Columnist George Will once quipped: “Barry Goldwater won the 1964 election. It just took 16 years to count the votes.” Will was referring to the conservative revolution that launched Goldwater’s candidacy and elevated Ronald Reagan to the White House 16 years later. How did it happen? That is the story of Steven F. Hayward’s magnificent The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order 1964-1980.

Hayward begins with Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in 1964. LBJ won 44 states. He captured 61% of the popular vote. Johnson quickly began passing his agenda, becoming the most successful president since Franklin Roosevelt and the most consequential president in American history.

Johnson’s performance with the 89th Congress transformed America. His Great Society vision reshaped the social compact between citizen and government. The president’s vision highlighted a can-do optimism that defined liberalism during those years.  Johnson’s liberalism assured Americans that Washington could fix the country’s problems.

He went right to work. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave blacks equality. He provided health care for the elderly (Medicare) and the poor (Medicaid). He promoted children’s education with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and helped young people pay for college with the Higher Education Act.  He supported government transparency with the Freedom of Information Act.  He abolished quotas and liberalized immigration laws with the Immigration and Naturalization Act.

Johnson was riding high. Then everything fell apart.

Johnson governed during one of the most turbulent times in American history.

Vietnam protests and urban unrest rocked the country. The White House expected war protests after Johnson escalated the war. “Don’t pay attention to those little shits on campus,” he told his staff. But inner city riots shocked Johnson. After all, he had signed two civil historic civil rights bills early in his term and launched a war on poverty. Those measures couldn’t keep the peace.

Harlem exploded in 1964.Watts erupted a year later.Detroit and Newark came unglued in 1967. Riots broke out nationwide in April 1968 following the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Smoke filled the air of the nation’s capital. Johnson could see it from the Oval Office.

The president mishandled both protest movements because he didn’t anticipate their source. He thought the threat would come from the Right. His famous 1964 campaign ad “Daisy” suggested that electing conservatives would lead to nuclear war. Most of the establishment thought so as well. Historian Richard Hofstadter believed Goldwater supporters represented a paranoid strain of the electorate. In fact, 1960s radicalism came from the left.

Hayward argues that the Johnson presidency collapsed because Democrats ate their own. The New Left waged war against Johnson’s reform liberalism. Nothing Johnson accomplished was good enough for them. Todd Gitlin, a New Left historian, claimed liberals were the Left’s bête noire.

Republicans took advantage of the Democrats’ feud in 1966. They added 47 House seats and 3 Senate seats. Ronald Reagan became one of eight new GOP governors.

This only emboldened the New Left. They were young, militant, and planned on changing the world. Students for Democratic Society (SDS) became the engine of this movement. During 1966-1967,Hayward contends they transitioned from an anti-war agenda to an anti-American one.

SDS promised to bring the war home. They condemned America’s imperialist war abroad and expressed solidarity with the North Vietnamese. They championed revolutionary figures Mao Tse-Tung, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

Civil rights movements also took a strident tone. Organizations such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and Congress of Racial Equality said non-violent civil disobedience alone couldn’t get blacks political and economic power. This rhetoric fueled urban unrest.

The Newark and Detroit riots in 1967 startled the Johnson administration. The White House couldn’t figure out why mass violence had broken out in those cities. The Great Society invested heavily in both areas and had seen great economic success.

Pat Moynihan called Detroit “liberalism’s city.” It had received $200 million in federal grants during the 1960s. Black unemployment was down to 6.7%.Newark looked good as well. It spent $277 per capita to fight poverty and had seen unemployment drop in half over a five year period.

Economic expansion didn’t prevent the riots. If anything, it highlighted what the Manhattan Institute’s Myron Magnet has called the dream and the nightmare of the 1960s. These were the unintended social consequences of the Great Society policies were revealed. This led to the breakdown of law and order in America.

Things were about to get a whole lot worse.

Johnson had reason to hope as 1968 began. Time had just named him “Man of the Year.” He had a 46% approval rating. Vietnam concerned voters, but they still supported the war effort. The economy continued to grow: January was the 84th consecutive month of expansion, the longest sustained growth period on record. LBJ thought a good economy would help him win re-election that fall.

1968 was not Johnson’s year. On January 30th the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive. Though the US ultimately won a military victory, initial reports suggested American forces had experienced a devastating set-back. CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite said the war had reached a stalemate and theUS should begin negotiating a peace treaty. With that Johnson famously lamented: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”

Tet revealed U.S. policymakers growing “credibility gap” with the American public. Many in Congress had witnessed a credibility gap for a few years. Arkansas senator J. William Fulbright, a leading Vietnam critic, coined the term when he couldn’t get a straight answer from the administration about the war effort.

Johnson kept his escalation plans under wraps from the legislature and the American people.Hayward says that hiding the troop-build up, rather than the action itself, was the most catastrophic decision the administration made.

Vietnam became a war based on credibility, not security. Most people couldn’t find the country on a map when Johnson signed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August 1964. They became all too familiar with that country as Johnson escalated the war effort over the next few years.

This was not the war Johnson wanted to fight. He preferred to wage war on poverty at home, but circumstances forced him to stick up for our ally South Vietnam.

Johnson’s Vietnam strategy was based on George Kennan’s containment philosophy. Kennan argued that the Soviet Union wanted to spread communism around the globe. The U.S. should seek to contain communism and not allow it to expand.

The president believed he must stand firm in Southeast Asia. He feared the “domino theory,” an extension of the containment doctrine, would result if he lost South Vietnam.

America prestige was at stake, the administration believed. Johnson vowed he wouldn’t “lose” Vietnam like President Truman had “lost” China. The president feared that if he lost Vietnam, he might lose South Korea or Taiwan as well.

The president never tied American credibility and prestige with American security. As the death tolls piled up in Southeast Asia, many citizens wondered why the U.S.was sacrificing blood and treasure there.

By 1968 Johnson and his top field commander, General William C. Westmoreland promised the public that American forces had the North Vietnamese on the rope. Tet shattered that promise and disillusioned the country. The public turned against the war.

Events at home began falling apart as well, as Johnson paid the consequences for his guns and butter strategy. Four years earlier, he had proclaimed: “we can do it all; we’re the richest nation on earth.” That optimism fueled the Great Society investment initiatives. But Johnson insisted on fighting Vietnam too. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara later admitted that he underestimated war expenditures to make sure that Congress funded Johnson’s domestic programs.

Spending exploded during the Johnson year. The threat of inflation grew as Johnson continued funding his guns and butter strategy. The administration saw the writing on the wall in 1967. Johnson asked House Ways and Means chairman Wilbur Mills to temporarily hike income and corporate taxes 10% to pay for his spending splurge.

Congress balked. Mills, a supporter of a balanced budget, told reporters he couldn’t trust Johnson with the extra revenue. He feared the president would use additional funds for new spending and not for deficit reduction. It took the president nearly a year to get the tax increase.

Johnson’s fiscal policy had perilous effects on the value of the dollar. His expansionary monetary supply led to inflation. By 1966 the money supply was hovering around 7%, up considerably from the 2.8% non-inflationary average.

Liberals weren’t listening to economist Milton Friedman, who argued that expanding the money supply led to inflation. Instead Johnson encouraged businesses to hold down wages and prices (something his successor would do as well). He also followed the traditional Keynesian formula to combat the problem: cutting spending.

As these developments played out, Granite State voters shocked the political world during the March 12th primary. Minnesota senator Eugene McCarthy, running on an anti-war platform, garnered 42% of the vote. This was the base’s stunning rebuke of their commander in chief and his foreign policy. Johnson won a pyrrhic victory.

Nineteen days later, Johnson told the country he was ordering an end to the bombing of North Vietnam during a primetime Oval Office address. Halting the war’s escalation,Hayward points out, was a sign of a president acknowledging his political reality.

Johnson felt he must cut war spending to combat creeping inflation. Americans must tighten their belts and prepare for austerity, Johnson said.

As the speech concluded, Johnson made a surprise announcement. He told the nation he would not seek another term. This was a prelude to a turbulent election season.

Shortly thereafter, New York senator Robert Kennedy entered the presidential race as another anti-war candidate and an heir to Camelot. Vice President Hubert Humphrey joined the field as well, promising to continue his boss’s Vietnam strategy.

Humphrey didn’t compete in the primaries however, preferring to shore up delegates in non-primary state. He thought Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and other party leaders would provide him enough support to win the nomination.

That left McCarthy and Kennedy to battle it out on the campaign trail. McCarthy won April contests in Wisconsin,Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Kennedy responded a month later with victories in Nebraska and Indiana. McCarthy came back and won the Oregon primary in late May.

The two fought a vicious campaign in California. Kennedy won a narrow victory in the June 4th primary. Following his victory speech, an assassin’s bullet killed him.

The Kennedy assassination threw the Democratic Party into turmoil and led to a tumultuous summer convention inChicago. Hubert Humphrey’s nomination enraged the anti-war wing of the party. The vice-president hadn’t competed in any of the primaries while Eugene McCarthy had won nearly 3 million votes. Nevertheless, Humphrey easily won the nomination.

Riots came to Chicago during convention week. A stunned nationwide audience watched the convention unfold while events in Grant Park escalated out of control. Police beat protestors, upset that Democrats had nominated a pro-war candidate.

The Left had come unglued. Republican candidate Richard Nixon promised to restore law-and-order to America during his fall campaign. Nixon said he spoke for the “silent majority” of Americans, horrified by that year’s riots, assassinations, and the chaos at the Democratic convention. Voters gave the California Republican the presidency.

Nixon’s election should have rallied Democrats. Liberals despised Nixon for his anti-communism, specifically his role in the Alger Hiss case and his dirty campaign tactics against Helen Gahagan Douglas in their 1950 Senate campaign. They reveled in his 1960 presidential defeat (though he actually ran to the left of John F. Kennedy) and took great schadenfraude when he lost the 1962California gubernatorial race to Pat Brown.

Democrats had a great opportunity to beat Nixon in the 1972 presidential contest. The war in Vietnam still dragged on. Inflation had flared up again, eroding Americans’ purchasing power. Nixon’s response angered to the problem angered his base. Nixon ordered temporary wage and price controls. The Right became even more upset when Nixon went to Red China, met with Mao Tse-Tung, and sought rapprochement with The People’s Republic.

High unemployment also threatened Nixon’s re-election. In January 1969 unemployment was at 3.4%. It jumped to 6% two years later, the first time it had reached that level since John Kennedy’s first year in office. Unemployment remained above 5% through Election Day.

Democrats needed to nominate a credible alternative to the president. Instead they chose a man amenable to the New Left.

That was partly a result of Party nominating rules. Hubert Humphrey’s nomination angered many liberals. They thought his elevation was patently unfair. Party bosses in back-room meetings, rather than Democratic primary voters, gave him the nomination.

In 1968 only 20% of convention delegates were chosen from the primary process. 60% of convention delegates came from that process four years later. This change tilted the primaries toward a populist Leftist.

South Dakota senator George McGovern announced his presidential candidacy in January 1971. He was the first Democrat to enter the race. McGovern was a fighter pilot in World War II, came home and earned a Ph.D. in history, and was a college professor before entering politics.

In January 1965 he became an outspoken critic of LBJ’s Vietnam policy. His anti-war rhetoric heated up in the coming years. By 1972 he publicly proclaimed: “come home America.”

McGovern remained low in the polls throughout 1971.  Only 3% of Democrats supported him in January 1972. But the senator worked New Hampshire hard, like Gene McCarthy had done four years earlier, and came in a surprising second behind Maine’s Ed Muskie in the nation’s first primary state.

Muskie won the traditional blue collar base of the Democratic Party. McGovern appealed to white collar Democrats, academics, and young people. In short, McGovern appealed to the party’s activist wing.

The South Dakotan called for higher taxes on the rich, increased government spending, and a guaranteed annual income for the poor. He was a tax and spend liberal who wanted to slash the defense budget (by 37%) and use those savings for more butter at home. He promised American forces would exit Vietnam within ninety days of his inauguration.

He also denounced Republicans’ anti-communism. His rhetoric was a prelude to Jimmy Carter’s concern over “America’s inordinate fear of communism.” The senator told Playboy the U.S. was “paranoid” about the USSR and that communism was no longer a threat to its national security. To him, the Cold War was a big distraction from fixing the country’s problems at home.

That was music to the ears of the New Left. McGovern raced to the nomination. Radical journalist I.F. Stone spoke for many at the party convention in Miami when he proclaimed: “I felt I had lived to see a miracle.”

Establishment Democrats begged to differ. The AFL-CIO’s George Meany said: McGovern’s economic policies “aren’t liberal. They’re crazy.” His powerful labor union sat out the 1972 campaign, claiming it had no interest in watching the party self-destruct. Congressional Democrats concurred: only 30 of the 255 House members showed up in Miami.

The 1972 convention turned into a circus. 86% of the delegates participated for the first time. A quarter of delegates were under 30 years old. Women made up nearly 40% of the delegation, up from 13% four years earlier.

The SDS’ “participatory democracy” was on full display at the convention. Every interest group got their five minutes of fame. The convention ran until 5 am the first night. It ran till 6:20 am the second. McGovern didn’t deliver his nomination address until nearly 3am on the convention’s final night. Only 4 million homes watched the candidate utter his famous rallying cry “come home America.”

Democrats lost their heads in 1972 and helped President Nixon cruise to re-election. He won 49 states, the most lopsided presidential victory in history.

All was not lost for liberals. Nixon’s landslide did little to alter Congress’s composition. The GOP won twelve House seats but lost two Senate ones. Democrats still controlled the legislature by wide margins.

Nixon showed his disdain for Congress the following January. He became the first president who chose not to deliver a State of the Union address in front of a joint session of Congress since Woodrow Wilson began the tradition sixty years earlier. The absence of good will grew exponentially over the next twenty months.

Watergate dominated the news in 1973 and 1974. Scandal brought down Vice President Spiro Agnew in 1973. Nixon replaced the former Maryland governor with GOP House leader Gerald Ford, a man with no legislative accomplishments during his two decades in Congress.

Ford was the type of man who kept Republicans in the congressional minority for 40 years, a man bereft of ideas that went along to get along. Democrats had no objection to his selection. He became the chief-executive the following August when Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace.

Shortly thereafter, Ford signed his own fate. His popularity plummeted following his pardon of Richard Nixon. Liberals looked poised to retake the White House after eight years in the wilderness.

Jimmy Carter was the unlikeliest of presidential candidates. The former Georgia governor had never worked in Washington and was unknown to the nation at large. But Carter promised to help the country close a painful chapter and assured Americans he would never lie to them. He slowly began climbing in the polls.

In 1975 syndicated political columnist Bob Novak was walking the streets of New York. A limousine pulled up next to him. Jimmy Carter was inside.

“Bob” Carter remarked to the influential reporter, “I’m running for president.”

“President of what?” Novak replied.

Carter’s announcement surprised his own family as well. Even his mother raised an eyebrow when her son announced his presidential ambitions.

It would be a mistake to say charm alone helped Jimmy Carter win the presidency. He ran as an outsider planning to clean up Washington. After the damage done by two previous Washington Insiders, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and the cynicism they’d created because of their lies about Vietnam and Watergate, Carter looked like a comfortable choice.

He was a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia. A graduate of the Naval Academy. A Sunday School teacher. A Born-Again Christian. And in January 1977, he became the 39th American president.

Carter got off to a rocky start in Washington. He put House Speaker Tip O’Neill at the back of the room at an Inauguration Dinner. O’Neill thought this was an oversight from a Washington outsider. It was not.

The new president wanted to put Washington’s Democratic establishment on alert. There was a new sheriff in town.

Critics questioned the president’s leadership style. They noted that he had not hired a chief of staff and seemed obsessed with superfluous details. The White House Press Corps asked Press Secretary Jody Powell if the president really kept tabs on every person who used the White House tennis courts. Powell denied it, but later reports showed it was true.

A number of disasters happened on Carter’s watch. The Georgian had little idea how to right the ship. This created calamites at home and abroad.

During those years, it was said there was nothing more dangerous than being an American ally. The U.S. stood by as two long-time allies fell to totalitarians.

Though both the Shah of Iran and Nicauraga’s Anastasio Somoza Debayle were autocrats, their successors were antithetical to US interests and ideals.Iran turned into an Islamic Republic under Ayatollah Khomeini and remains a thorn in America’s side to this day. A Marxist junta took over Nicaragua. Daniel Ortega governs it today.

Radical Iranian students stormed the American embassy in Iran during the summer of 1979. They held 52 hostages for 444 days. Carter, try as he might, failed to get them released.

Carter continued the détente policies of his Republican predecessors. He agreed to an arms control treaty (SALT II) with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev in 1979. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan later that year, the Senate balked at ratifying the treaty. Carter responded to the Soviet aggression by keeping Americans out of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow.

The one highlight of Carter’s foreign policy was the Camp David Accords. Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in which, for the first time, an Arab state recognized Israel’s right to exist. Sadly the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated when he returned home by an angry Muslim, enraged that his country had recognized the Zionist foe.

Carter’s performance on domestic matters mirrored his incompetence in foreign affairs. An energy crisis kept Americans at gas lines during the summer of 1979.  Carter responded by creating a new bureaucracy, the Department of Energy, hoping it would help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. That bureaucracy still stands, as inept now as it was during the height of the energy crisis.

The president’s handling of the economy was even worse. Though unemployment had dropped from 7.5% when he entered office to 6.3% by January 1980, the Feds loose monetary policy led to inflation. Interest rates ballooned to double digits by 1979. The next year they soared to 18%.

Carter put Paul Volcker in charge of the Fed, but it was too late to do the president much good. Volcker ultimately squeezed out inflation during his term, but by that time Carter was back in Plains,Georgia.

The administration’s policies angered congressional liberals. Carter governed as a fiscal hawk and vetoed several spending measures that reached his desk. The Democratic president also began something that was Reaganesque (and anathema to liberals): he deregulated the airline industry.

But nothing fixed the economy in the short-term. The economy was an albatross around Carter’s neck. The Iranian hostage crisis showed his impotence. Advisors told Carter he must reassure Americans that he felt their pain and could fix the country’s problems.

During the summer of 1979, Carter spent ten days meeting with experts from around the country at his Camp David retreat. His pollster Pat Caddell encouraged him to give a speech when he returned toWashington.

On July 15, Carter delivered a primetime speech from the Oval Office which addressed the energy crisis and the sagging economy. It was the administration’s defining moment.

Carter blamed the people for the country’s problems and urged them to sacrifice to help get through the energy crisis. He encouraged them to carpool, to stay off the road one day a week, and not to exceed the speed limit. He said the public should set their thermostats to save fuel.

He pointed to his own performance. He highlighted the solar panel he installed on the White House roof and said he wore a sweater in the residence to reduce his carbon footprint.

The speech bombed. Carter looked like a president who blamed the nation’s lifestyle for its problems. Americans began tuning the president out.

Liberals sought a new direction. They were ready to turn the page on the Carter administration and were thrilled when Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy announced his intention to run in the Democratic primaries against the incumbent president.

But Kennedy’s campaign got off to a disastrous start. In an interview with CBS’s Roger Mudd, he couldn’t say why he wanted to be president. He never gave a satisfactory answer for his role in the Chappaquiddick scandal either.

Carter fought off Kennedy during the campaign season, but the senator’s challenge split the party. That became clear at that summer’s Party convention inNew York. Kennedy delivered his epic “The Dream Will Never Die” address that heartened liberals and attacked the GOP nominee Ronald Reagan.

Ironically, Reagan had delivered a similarly impassioned address at the 1976 GOP Convention in Kansas City. At the end of that speech, conservatives cried out: My God. We’ve nominated the wrong man.

Kennedy’s thundering oration was liberals’ last hurrah for nearly thirty years.

Reagan destroyed Carter in the fall campaign. His conservative counter-revolution, which Hayward chronicles in volume two of his Age of Reagan, shaped the country until Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

Liberals thought Obama would fulfill Ted Kennedy’s “dream” and were giddy about the realignment they felt his election had created.

Democratic strategist James Carville thought Obama’s election would usher in forty years of Democratic Party rule. The press heralded his arrival: they called him the greatest orator since Lincoln and the heir to Franklin Roosevelt.

Obama spent his first two years signing progressive legislation into law.

His stimulus stopped the economic bleeding and helped save or create 2 million private sector jobs over the next year. Dodd-Frank provided financial regulation and reassured Americans that Washington would keep a better eye on Wall Street. The legislation created a new bureaucracy, the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which would protect average Americans from corporate malfeasance. Most importantly, the president signed a new health-care law that expanded coverage for 30 million Americans.

Voters seemed unimpressed by these legislative accomplishments. They were concerned about the anemic economic recovery after the $787 billion Keynesian stimulus. Unemployment remained above 9% during this period, despite the president’s promise that the stimulus would keep unemployment beneath 8%.

The health care bill angered Americans, who felt Democrats should concentrate on jobs and the economy rather than spending a year plus on an ideological goal. Many believed the bill was wrong-headed as well, since it did nothing to control exploding health care costs.

Independents turned on the president early on. Republicans won governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia in November 2009. A few months later, Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts senate seat.

The 2010 mid-term elections showed voter’s disdain for the Democrats’ agenda. Republicans regained control of the House. Democrats lost six seats in the Senate.

Gridlock hit Washington. President Obama hasn’t handled divided government well. His approval ratings have plummeted.

The country faces another crisis of confidence moment. Many on the Right have spent 2011 comparing him to Jimmy Carter. The Left has spent 2011 wondering why Obama lost his mo-jo. They worry things have begun falling apart.


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