WHEN SENATOR Ted Kennedy walked onto the podium at the 1980 Democratic Convention, the crowd erupted. The senator raised his fist to the Massachusetts delegation. Then he quickly shook President Carter’s hand and walked away without lifting Carter’s arm—the traditional sign of unity at the end of a primary battle. After Kennedy left, the crowd shouted, “We want Ted!” so vigorously that he returned for an encore. At that point, it looked like Carter had to chase Kennedy down to get his attention. Ronald Reagan, the Republican nominee, took close notice of what had happened. “If that’s the best they can do in unity, they have a long way to go….” Six months later, Reagan trounced him in the election with 489 Electoral College votes.
The awkward scene between Carter and Kennedy culminated four years of tense relations between these two men and, more importantly, between the White House and liberal Democrats in Congress. The fallout was devastating to the party, especially as the conservative movement was gaining steam in the 1970s. Since Carter’s presidency, the relationship between centrist and liberal Democrats has been characterized by mistrust and suspicion.
President Obama has a historic opportunity to restore an alliance that was crucial to the success of twentieth-century liberalism. The 2008 election depended on a broad Democratic coalition that bridged left and center, and there was a considerable amount of goodwill between congressional liberals and the White House. Thus far, however, Obama has repeated some of the mistakes that Carter made. With each month, it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve the kind of partnership that eluded Carter and Kennedy.
THROUGHOUT THE twentieth century, the interaction between the center of the Democratic Party and its liberal wing produced some of the party’s shining moments, fostering presidential-congressional relations that helped to sustain Democratic majorities. President Roosevelt responded to pressure from third-party challenges in 1935 and 1936, like Louisiana Senator Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth Movement and Francis Townsend’s movement for old age pensions, by stealing their thunder and sending his own version of their proposals to Congress. Textbooks focus on Roosevelt’s accomplishments, but it took liberal legislators such as New York Senator Robert Wagner to push FDR to take on key issues that seemed too risky politically. As the political scientist David Mayhew wrote, “one reading of the significance of the 1932 election might be: It produced a president who would sign Wagner’s bills.” The result was key New Deal programs like Social Security and the Wagner Act.
President Lyndon Johnson continued to listen to the Left, taking on highly explosive issues like civil and voting rights, even as he warned the “bomb-throwers” that they needed to be practical. Vice President Hubert Humphrey served as a bridge between Johnson and liberals like Senators Paul Douglas and Joseph Clark, who counteracted the president’s natural inclination to compromise with conservative forces. New York’s Emanuel Celler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, helped push administration bills on the floor. Martin Luther King Jr. was reportedly in tears when he watched Johnson deliver an address to a joint session of Congress on March 15, 1965 calling for voting rights legislation, only days after the horrific attacks by police on protesters in Alabama. Johnson ended the speech by saying “We Shall Overcome.” Everyone listening understood the significance of the president directly borrowing the language of the civil rights movement, which was still considered radical in many segments of society. While Johnson disagreed with the scale and scope of the measures the Left called for, his ability to implement their ideas remains the greatest legacy of his presidency.
But then a civil war within the Democratic Party unfolded under his watch. Johnson did not listen to the Left on foreign policy, pushing forward with his disastrous war in Vietnam. “Don’t pay attention to what those little shits on the college campuses do,” Johnson told Undersecretary of State George Ball. “The great beast is the reactionary element in the country.” Johnson was equally dismissive of liberals in Congress like Idaho Senator Frank Church who urged him to listen to those protesting. The struggle over Vietnam generated a destructive fight between the left and center of the party, which imploded during the 1968 Democratic Convention.
There was a moment of opportunity, often forgotten, to revitalize the alliance when President Carter entered the White House in 1977. Democrats were in a strong position. Despite Richard Nixon’s 1972 landslide victory, the Republican Party was in deep trouble as a result of Watergate. Public opinion about the party mired in corruption remained low. Republicans had shown signs of division during the primaries—Ronald Reagan, representing the conservative wing of the party, challenged President Gerald Ford and nearly defeated him. When Democrats took control of the White House and increased their numbers in the House and Senate (where they enjoyed a filibuster-proof majority) the possibility of a reenergized party seemed likely.
The key for the Democrats would be whether the center and Left could work together in productive fashion. The relationship revolved around Carter and Kennedy’s ability to maneuver around the institutional divisions between the White House and Capitol Hill.
Carter represented the center of the party. He wanted to move beyond the traditional left-right divisions that had characterized national politics. As soon as he started his presidency, Carter showed a willingness to challenge key liberal interest groups like organized labor. He also proposed domestic initiatives, such as energy conservation, that angered many traditional liberal constituencies. On foreign policy, Carter also refused to be pinned down by traditional positions. While he sometimes pleased the Left by taking on issues like improving America’s standing in Central America and championing human rights, he also caused tension by taking tough positions against the Soviet Union.
In contrast, Senator Kennedy represented the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Kennedy remained committed to most ideas and policies that came out of the Great Society. At a time when many members of his party backed away from Lyndon Johnson’s legacy, Kennedy unabashedly defended issues like racial equality and anti-poverty programs. Yet Kennedy was particularly dangerous to Republicans because he was a shrewd politician who knew how to round up votes. Kennedy had seen some of the damage caused to Democrats by extremism on the Left, and he was determined to work inside the political process to get things done. He was also open to new ideas, like deregulation, that did not fit neatly into the traditional Democratic agenda.
If these two men could have worked together, the results could have been explosive. But the relationship did not work, and Carter was unable to nurture an alliance. Their first clash came with health care. Most liberal Democrats, led by organized labor, thought that national health care had to be the top priority for the new administration. In his first year, Carter had postponed action on health care, saying that stabilizing the economy and taming inflation had to come first. When Carter finally told Kennedy that he would not pursue health care reform at all, the senator said that Carter had displayed a “failure of leadership” on the issue.
Kennedy also became increasingly frustrated with the administration’s decision to focus most of its attention on inflation rather than unemployment by late 1978. Liberal Democrats argued that the government needed to focus on jobs first because middle- and working-class Americans were suffering from the staggering rate of unemployment. But on October 24, 1978, the president made a televised speech in which he called for spending cuts, wage and price guidelines, and other measures to control inflation. The anger from the Left was palpable. In a midterm convention in December 1978 Kennedy told fellow party members that “sometimes a party must sail against the wind,” rather than giving into conservative pressure, as he said Carter had done.
The struggle with liberals extended into foreign policy as well. Following the 1978 midterm elections, Kennedy criticized the administration both for being too hawkish and for failing to articulate a clear policy direction. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Carter took a tough posture, calling for a buildup of military forces in the Persian Gulf and vowing to combat Soviet aggression. Speaking at Georgetown University Kennedy castigated Carter for a “helter-skelter policy.” “Exaggeration and hyperbole,” Kennedy warned, “are the enemies of sensible foreign policy.”
As Carter was forced to confront the burgeoning conservative movement during his final years, and then faced a series of difficult challenges, including the second OPEC oil embargo and the Iranian Hostage crisis, he lacked the support and organizational energy that liberals could have provided.
THE LOST opportunity between Carter and Kennedy has haunted the Democratic Party for decades. The success of the conservative movement aggravated the left-center division as an increasingly prominent group of Democrats, operating through the Democratic Leadership Council, concluded that their party had to stick to moderate principles if they hoped to win the presidency in the Age of Reagan. Clinton famously pursued “triangulation” by stealing away issues from the Right, like welfare reform, and adopting them as his own. Centrists in the 1990s did not envision themselves as part of an alliance with the Left, but rather as an alternative for voters.
President Obama came into office with a huge opportunity to remake this coalition. First, because of low public opinion for the policies of President George W. Bush, he was able to stimulate a strong alliance on the campaign trail between the different factions of the Democratic Party. The second reason for optimism among Democrats was the leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Like Kennedy, Pelosi is an enormously skilled legislator who has pursued a clear progressive agenda through effective and pragmatic political tactics. Like Kennedy, she stands by liberal ideas but knows how to round up votes.
Yet in President Obama’s first sixteen months in office, liberals and the White House have drifted farther apart. As with Carter, the erosion of support has happened slowly.
The first sign of tension between liberals and Obama emerged when the administration announced its economic team. To the surprise of many of his supporters, Obama selected policymakers who had worked in the Clinton White House during the 1990s, practitioners of neoliberal economics such as Larry Summers. These were individuals who accepted many of the economic arguments from the Reagan era about deregulation, free trade, and unfettered markets, and who had little interest in expanding government.
When Obama pushed for his economic stimulus plan in January and February 2009, he started the negotiations with the Senate by proposing a figure that was considerably below what liberal economists were calling for to jumpstart the economy. Then, he agreed to an even lower figure in order to try and win the votes of two Senate Republicans. Many liberals believed that Obama had given too much away by bargaining despite his position of strength following the election.
Then came the health-care debate. The proposal that the president pursued strayed very far from the single-payer system that liberals sought between the 1940s and 1970s. Indeed, President Obama’s plan made fewer fundamental reforms to the market-based health insurance system than President Clinton had demanded in 1993. Throughout the legislative debate, the president continually rebuffed liberal proposals to strengthen the bill. Most famously, he abandoned the public option. He also scaled back his demands on other measures, such as the level of subsidies for middle-class Americans who would be required to purchase coverage. For a time many liberals, such as former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, called on Democrats to oppose the bill. Dean wrote in the Washington Post, “I reluctantly conclude that, as it stands, this bill would do more harm than good to the future of America.”
As the battle over health care flared, other issues, like climate change and immigration reform, were shelved. Obama has brought climate change back, almost a year after Pelosi found the votes for the bill in the House, but only after a major environmental disaster forced his hand. In the end, most on the Left signed onto the health care legislation and were happy that the party did not walk away with a loss. But many of them found very little satisfaction with the final bill, which they fear will simply offer a bonanza to the insurance industry.
Some of the most stinging criticism of the Obama administration has come from the African American community. In Chicago, PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley organized a summit in March, attended by prominent figures like Cornel West and Jesse Jackson, in which they protested that Obama has not done enough to deal with the problems that disproportionately affect African Americans. They also complained that he has distanced himself from African American leaders by keeping them out of his inner circle.
Similarly there have been many disappointments among the Left with regards to national security policy. The president overrode the advice of many liberals in the party when he escalated the military operations in Afghanistan. In his campaign against Senator John McCain, Obama promised that he would work to end the war in Iraq within sixteen months. But in May 2010, sixteen months after the historic inauguration, over 94,000 troops were still stationed in Iraq.
Though he started his term by announcing that Guantánamo would be closed, the facility remains open. Although he has renounced the use of torture, many of the policies from President Bush’s war on terrorism remain in place. The Left has expressed deep frustration with this seeming lack of attention to civil liberties and executive power.
The situation has not yet reached a breaking point as it did in 1980, but the risk is there. President Obama has already paid a steep price for his growing tensions with the Left. Some of the grassroots energy and mobilization that could have been extremely useful in counteracting the Tea Party movement, and which could help to get out the vote in the midterm elections, has dissipated since 2008. At the same time, the compromises that he has made to win over the center have not helped him stifle conservative attacks that he is left-of-center; polls show that many independents have become unhappy with his policies.
Speaker Pelosi has consistently worked hard to reverse this trend. Pelosi helped save Obama’s signature measure, health care, in its darkest political days. At three critical points in the health care debate, Pelosi delivered. First, she assembled a center-left coalition around the original House bill in November by pushing through a controversial amendment related to abortion that brought moderate Democrats on board. Second, when many Democrats, including top presidential advisors such as Rahm Emanuel, contemplated breaking up the bill after the Massachusetts election, Pelosi stood firm and defended holistic reform. She “kept the steel in the President’s back,” according to one Democrat. Finally, she demonstrated the type of vote-getting skills in the final House vote that other legends such as Speaker Sam Rayburn were capable of in their heyday. While Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy in 2006 and 2008 resulted in more congressional Democrats emanating from conservative districts, Pelosi (unlike Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid) has not allowed this broader coalition to become a crippling barrier to legislative victory.
Pelosi has been instrumental on a number of other issues that are important to liberals. The speaker pressured the White House to move forward with reforming the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy. As gay activists became increasingly frustrated with the administration for dragging its feet, Pelosi tied the reform to the defense authorization bill. “They got the message,” one former Clinton official told Politico, “I think, actually really from Pelosi that [Congress was] going to try to do this with or without the White House . . . They could be part of it or not be part of it. She figured if Congress tried to get something done and failed, the White House would be blamed. If it tried to get something done and succeeded, and they stood on the sidelines, they’d look like jerks, and it would sort of make the president look bad. It was her leadership and her willingness to be out in front on this at the end that forced their hand.”
BY THE time that the 1980 Democratic Convention took place, it was too late for President Carter to repair the damage from his battles with liberal Democrats—though it is not clear that he ever wanted to. Reagan was right in his quip about the weak handshake: it was the best that Democrats could do.
But it is not too late for Obama. Because of his victory on health care and potential victory with financial regulation, he still has the potential to revitalize the alliance that never came together between Carter and Kennedy.
If he wants to do so, he can’t wait much longer. On June 8, 2010, progressive activists met in Washington to protest the compromises that the administration and congressional Democrats had made. “The White House has been an uncertain trumpet,” said Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future. Pelosi has continually struggled to push the White House to the left, but she was forced to confront the political costs of compromises when she was heckled during a speech to the activists. Following the 2010 midterm elections, Obama will have to work much more closely with Speaker Pelosi to reenergize liberals who feel disillusioned with the administration’s understanding of “change.” The president has to demonstrate a stronger commitment to all of the people who brought him to the dance. If he does, he could bring back an alliance that gave the Democratic Party some of its most politically successful and legislatively productive moments.
Julian E. Zelizer is Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University. This fall, Times Books will publish his newest work, Jimmy Carter. He is also the author of Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security—From World War II to the War on Terrorism (Basic Books) and the editor of The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment (Princeton University Press).
(Homepage Photo: Kennedy and Carter in the Oval Office (Jimmy Carter Library / National Archives)