The Moynihan Enigma

Daniel Patrick Moynihan was in an apocalyptic mood. As a late
winter rainstorm lashed the windows of his darkened Senate office,
Moynihan read scornfully from a column by the Washington Post's
William Raspberry quoting the departing secretary of housing,
Henry Cisneros: "Signing the welfare bill pushes the cities,
and for that matter, the federal government to the wall. If jobs
are not created to take up the people who are coming off of welfare,
social chaos is the result. That's unacceptable. Therefore, there's
no alternative but to address the problems of jobs in the cities."

"No alternative?" Moynihan sputtered. "There's
chaos already. Things could get vastly worse." The senior
senator from New York, now in his fourth term, has never been
diffident about expressing his ever-shifting views. A few decades
ago, he might have been heard inveighing with equal fervor against
the same social programs that he now defends. In foreign policy,
Moynihan went from hawkish nemesis of the New Left to critic of
Reaganite anti-Soviet excess. Framed magazine covers from the
Nation in 1979 and the New Republic in 1981 hang
in his office. The first is titled "Moynihan: the Conscience
of a Neoconservative"; the second, "Pat Moynihan, Neo-liberal."

But Moynihan insists he has been utterly consistent throughout
his career, tacking left or right, as necessary, against the prevailing
winds. And he has a point. While his political stands may have
fluctuated, Moynihan's temperament has not. In his various posts,
Moynihan has been consistent in his inconsistency. He is, first
and foremost, a critic—an oppositionist who revels in puncturing
received truths. In his Senate career, Moynihan has often defined
himself in opposition to the incumbent president, from Carter
to Reagan, from Bush to Clinton.

As a product of World War II, Moynihan is one of the first American
versions of what the British historian A.J.P. Taylor called the
new phenomenon of the mass-intellectual. The mass-intellectual
tries to combine the roles of scholar and politician, but has
trouble actually exercising power. By the time Moynihan entered
the Senate in 1977, he had written ten books, including such influential
works as Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding (on LBJ's War
on Poverty) and Beyond the Melting Pot, co-authored with
Nathan Glazer. He appeared regularly in such journals as Commentary,
the New Yorker, Harper's, and the Atlantic.
But like his hero Woodrow Wilson, who went from Princeton intellectual
to politician, Moynihan seems doomed to disappoint his most ardent

Though future historians will doubtless place Moynihan among the
notable members of the twentieth-century Senate, his career has
been less marked by legislation than brilliant signal flares shot
up to rouse the citizenry. Moynihan has been at the leading edge
of important shifts in political and policy thinking, from the
second thoughts about the War on Poverty to the resurgence of
muscular foreign policy liberalism after Vietnam. As a centrist Democrat
and critic of Great Society welfarism long before the Democratic
Leadership Council patented the idea, Moynihan was seemingly positioned
to play a crucial bridging role between a New Democrat White House
and a more conservative Congress, especially when he succeeded
Lloyd Bentsen as Finance Committee chairman in 1993. Yet his impatience
with compromise, his love of the soapbox, and his disdain for
lesser intellects has caused him to come up short as a senator
again and again, even on his own cherished issues. Edward Kennedy,
from the left edge of the Senate, can boast far more legislative

Born on March 16, 1927, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Moynihan experienced
poverty firsthand. Shortly after Daniel Patrick's birth, his father,
John, moved the family to Ridgefield, New Jersey, where he squandered
his wages on booze and gambling. By 1937, the family was in Manhattan's
rugged Hell's Kitchen section, where Moynihan attended high school
between shining shoes and delivering newspapers.

After working as a stevedore on the New York docks, Moynihan entered
City College of New York in 1943, then switched to the Fletcher
School of Law and Diplomacy as part of his naval officer's training
program. Moynihan, who imbibed the school's Wilsonian gospel,
represented the school at the Student League for World Government.
In 1950, after earning a B.A. and M.A. from Fletcher, Moynihan
landed a Fulbright scholarship to study at the London School of
Economics. There Moynihan reinvented himself. He exchanged the
image of an Irish tough for an English gentleman, adopting a monocle
and wearing custom-made shoes and bowler hats.

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Upon returning to the United States in 1953, Moynihan plunged
into politics. Following a stint on Robert Wagner's successful
campaign for mayor of New York, Moynihan worked for the anticommunist
International Rescue Committee before serving as an assistant
to New York Governor W. Averell Harriman for four years. In 1958,
after Harriman was defeated for re-election, Moynihan secured
a teaching post at Syracuse University.

Academia became the launching pad for his own political career.
Moynihan began writing articles criticizing the Eisenhower administration
for the Cold War liberal magazine, the Reporter. His editor
was Irving Kristol.

Moynihan joined the Kennedy administration in the newly created
post of assistant secretary of labor for policy and research.
He increasingly defined himself as a Kennedy-esque blend of tough
anticommunist and domestic liberal. He helped create the Manpower
Development and Training Act, and he was a member of the working
group that conceived the War on Poverty.

Moynihan came to national attention with his famous 1965 report
entitled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action."
In it, he wrote that blacks could only achieve equality with the
"establishment of a stable Negro family structure."
Citing statistics about rising welfare dependency, illegitimate
births, and divorce, Moynihan pointed to a "tangle of pathology."
He characterized black family structure as "highly unstable"
and "approaching complete breakdown." He concluded the
report with this final flourish: "The policy of the United
States is to bring the Negro American to full and equal sharing
in the responsibilities and rewards of citizenship. To this end,
the programs of the Federal government bearing on this objective
shall be designed to have the effect, directly or indirectly,
of enhancing the stability and resources of the Negro American

Civil rights leaders denounced Moynihan for blaming the victim.
Harvard psychologist William Ryan, writing in the Nation,
accused Moynihan of espousing a "new ideology" that
depicted blacks as "savages."

Worse was to come. In March 1970, the New York Times released
a memo in which Moynihan, now working for the Nixon administration,
called for a policy of "benign neglect" on race. In
fact, he had urged the administration to focus on jobs programs
rather than race. In this respect, he was an early proponent of
what would be touted by people to his left as a "class, not
race" strategy on poverty. But the attention his memo drew
was anything but benign. In a sense, Moynihan was a victim of
an early version of political correctness.

Since then, Moynihan has been substantially vindicated both by
the intractable pathologies of the ghetto and by the political
limits of racial remedy. But at the time, the denunciations of
him had a chilling effect on white liberals. Douglas Massey, in
an essay in the November 1995 American Journal of Sociology,
writes that the obloquy heaped on Moynihan intimidated sociologists
from studying important issues related to race and intelligence.
Those who did, says Massey, "generally encountered resistance
and ostracism." The field was substantially ceded to the
likes of Charles Murray, who had respect neither for offended
sensibilities nor for data.


To Moynihan, these episodes of racial correctness were personally
wounding and politically alienating. He began to turn against
liberalism, at least the liberalism mediated by the New Left in
the Democratic Party. Writing in Commentary in February
1967, Moynihan declared that "the reaction of the liberal
Left to the issue of the Negro family was decisive. . . . The
liberal Left can be as rigid and destructive as any force in American
life." Moynihan was becoming a neoconservative.

It was not long afterward that he went to work for Nixon. But
soon after the benign neglect affair, Nixon shunted him aside
as a domestic adviser, and dispatched him as ambassador to India,
the same post to which Kennedy had exiled John Kenneth Galbraith.
There, Moynihan gained a supple understanding of foreign cultures
and nationalist aspirations. Traveling around India and Southeast
Asia brought home to him, he says, the fact that "all empires
are bound to crash," including, by extension, the Soviet
empire. Moynihan became a scathing critic of Third World kleptocracies
and their soft-headed American apologists.

For Moynihan, neoconservative foreign policy amounted to old-fashioned
liberal internationalism—Wilsonianism for new circumstances. In
the wake of Vietnam, there was an audience for the themes of American
confidence and self-assertion that Moynihan was sounding. After
Moynihan published an article entitled "The United States
in Opposition" in the March 1975 Commentary, in which
he argued that the Third World was exploiting its victimhood status
to blackmail the West, President Ford appointed Moynihan ambassador
to the United Nations. He had now consecutively served two Democratic
presidents, and then two Republican ones.

His new international pulpit allowed Moynihan to play to the home
front as an arch-Cold Warrior denouncing the excesses of Third
World despots and the naiveté of détente with the
Soviets, which he characterized as "a form of undisguised
retreat." He decried the infamous United Nations resolution
calling Zionism a form of racism. "This is a lie," he
said. "Whatever else Zionism may be, it is not and cannot
be 'a form of racism.'" For the second time in his career,
Moynihan made the cover of Time.

Elated neoconservatives such as Norman Podhoretz saw Moynihan
as their champion. Running for the Senate in 1976, Moynihan depicted
his Democratic primary opponent Bella Abzug as incapable of standing
up for American values: "I want to speak up against the charge
that we have exploited other countries or that our own prosperity
rests on plunder," he declared during the campaign. "I
want to go on declaring that we are prosperous because we have
been an energetic and productive people. I want to go on saying
that we will not be bullied and that we will not be blackmailed."
In the general election, Moynihan handily beat Republican James
Buckley, and he brought a number of young neoconservatives such
as Elliott Abrams and Charles Horner onto his Senate staff with

During the Carter administration, Moynihan seemed to fulfill many
of the hopes that the neoconservatives had reposed in him. He
denounced the Carterites for naiveté about the Third World
and communism. He considered the SALT II arms-control treaty negotiated
by Paul Warnke and Cyrus Vance a new form of appeasement. He called
President Carter's foreign policy "autotherapeutic fantasy."
Moynihan argued that Carter's demise was set in motion by UN ambassador
Donald F. McHenry's vote on behalf of a particularly vicious anti-Israel
resolution in the security council. Moynihan wrote that Carter's
failure to stand up to the Arab states meant that Ted Kennedy
was assured a victory in the 1980 New York primary. After Carter
was defeated by Reagan, Moynihan observed, "a party of the
working class cannot be dominated by former editors of the Harvard

Once Ronald Reagan took office, however, Moynihan reversed
himself. The Democratic neoconservatives, who had counted on Moynihan
to be the next Henry M. Jackson and run for the presidency, were
thunderstruck. The ideology of Marxism was dying of its own weight,
he felt, and the neoconservatives were oblivious to the implications
of the demise of the communist idea. "By 1979, I was persuaded
that the Soviet Union was going to collapse. When an idea dies
in Madrid, it takes two generations for word to reach Managua,"
he wrote in a letter to me last November.

No longer did Moynihan declare the East-West conflict the "central
political struggle of our time." Instead, he co-sponsored
three nuclear freeze proposals, opposed deployment of the MX missile,
denounced the CIA for mining Nicaraguan harbors, decried the invasion
of Grenada, and upheld adherence to international law as the highest
end of American diplomacy. In the 1970s, Moynihan's Wilsonian
impulses had prompted him to call for the use of American power
to spread democracy around the globe; in the 1980s, in the face
of what he saw as Reaganite flouting of international law, Moynihan
turned to a more legalistic Wilsonianism.

He also, again, became a defender of social programs, decrying
the administration's cuts in the social safety net that were being
led by his former Harvard protégé David Stockman.
Moynihan was an early critic of supply-side economics. By December
1989, in his fervor to expose Republican economic policy, Moynihan
even proposed a bill that would have cut Social Security payroll
taxes and put the system on a pay-as-you-go basis. Moynihan's
point was that trust fund surpluses were being misused to camouflage
the apparent size of the federal deficit. Without this financial
legerdemain, the deficit would be higher by tens of billions of
dollars and politicians would have to deal with it. Moynihan's
proposal caused a brief sensation, then died of inaction. His
liberal allies, who accepted the analysis, could not accept the
practical squeeze on the budget. Characteristically, Moynihan's
gambit was brilliant as a heuristic, sterile as legislation.


With Clinton's election to the presidency, Moynihan once again
played the contrarian, consistent less in his ideology than in
his opposition to the incumbent president. Moynihan saw Clinton
as a hubristic product of the 1960s who was intent on recapitulating
its fatal flaw of overreaching. Clinton and Moynihan got off to
a rocky start on the issue of health care after an unnamed aide
to the President told Newsweek that they would "roll
right over" Moynihan. A former aide to Moynihan says Moynihan
was enraged: "There are times when everybody around him thinks
he's behaving like a child," he said. "His whole relationship
with Clinton is driven by petulance."

Moynihan's chief of staff, Lawrence O'Donnell, never forgot the
slight. According to Haynes Johnson and David Broder's book, The
, O'Donnell saw Clinton's aides as naive and impractical.
"They don't get politics," O'Donnell said. "They
have a War Room for everything. They don't understand it's not
a fucking War Room. . . . We are here forever, and we don't fucking

Tactically, Moynihan faulted Clinton for tackling health reform
rather than welfare first. Health care was simply terra incognita
for Moynihan. A former aide says that "I think that Moynihan
never understood the health care bill, never tried terribly hard.
It was a subject he was totally overwhelmed by. There he was,
chairman of Finance, facing an incredibly complicated bill. He
decided he was too old and set in his ways to spend six months
learning health care. It's sort of a joke among Moynihan staff
that the one part of the bill he engaged and got into was the
protection of medical schools."

Moynihan's background predisposed him to side with the defenders
of academic medicine. His stance was one part academic solidarity,
one part pork barrel. In his new book, Miles To Go, Moynihan
takes the administration to task for preparing its health care
bill in secret and for failing to recognize that the bill would
"devastate the New York City hospital system which for most
of this century has, in fact, provided universal health care for
the city. . . ." In fact, there is little evidence that the
bill would have destroyed the New York hospital system. Ironically,
with the failure of universal health reform, a much more chaotic
shakeout is currently rocking New York.

Moynihan can share some responsibility for that failure. When
the Clinton plan appeared in 1993, Moynihan neither held hearings,
nor worked with the administration, nor presented his own alternative
until the next summer. Instead, Moynihan made his qualms public.
On September 19, 1993, three days before Clinton delivered his
formal address calling for universal health care, Moynihan went
on NBC's Meet The Press to declare that there was "no
health care crisis" and that the projected Medicaid and Medicare
savings of $91 billion in the Clinton plan were a "fantasy."
Compared to recent cuts in Medicare, that amount almost seems

Moynihan gave great weight to "Baumol's Disease," the
proposition advanced by his friend, New York University professor
William J. Baumol, that the cost of social programs inexorably
rises because they are labor-intensive. For Moynihan, Baumol's
Disease made cost containment in health care a hopeless cause.
So convinced was Moynihan of the cogency of Baumol's work that
he even invited Hillary Clinton to meet Baumol at his Pennsylvania
Avenue apartment for lunch.

Moynihan's own bill proposed new taxes on cigarettes and on handgun
ammunition—another clever heuristic—to partially finance mandated
health coverage in firms employing more than 20 workers. The bill
went nowhere. Moynihan was behaving more like a freelancing freshman
than as a key committee chairman of the President's party.

If Moynihan failed to play a key role on health care, his
passivity on the welfare reform bill is even more puzzling. This
was a subject he knew intimately. In the Nixon administration,
Moynihan had drafted the proposed Family Assistance Plan (FAP)
guaranteeing poor people a minimum annual income. The plan was
scotched, mainly by liberals who considered the income support
far too meager.

In 1988, Moynihan worked with the Reagan administration to enact
the Family Support Act, tightening work requirements and enforcement
of child support by absent fathers. This, too, alienated many
liberals, yet failed to alter fundamentally the welfare entitlement.
When Carter ran for the presidency, there was still a broad sense
that America needed to "end welfare as we know it."
Yet though the original Clinton plan proposed to accomplish this
with a blend of tough time limits and generous subsidies, Moynihan
doubted that Congress would spend the money. Conservatives, he
believed, had been all too successful at starving the system of
resources and demonizing the poor. He avoided any leadership role
on welfare reform. Mostly he remained on the sidelines, and sniped.

As Finance Committee chairman, Moynihan might have sought to broker
a coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats to reform welfare.
According to Mark Schmitt, a former senior staffer to Bill Bradley,
"Everyone was looking to what Moynihan was going to do. It
took a long time to realize that Moynihan's not asking us to go
anywhere with him. Clinton should have been cognizant of the consequences
of pulling Bentsen out. Moynihan cannot assemble that bipartisan
center in the Finance Committee."

A former aide to Moynihan puts it, "Moynihan basically figured
it was a lost cause and people like O'Donnell were saying, 'Why
even dirty your hands. If you try to come up with a serious alternative
that will involve making painful compromises, you're going to
end up losing anyway and you'll be blamed for making those compromises.
You're much better off sitting on the mountaintop and holding
fast to principle.'" In the end, Moynihan was one of 21 Senate
Democrats who voted against the bill. "Hundreds of thousands
of these children live in households that are held together primarily
by the fact of welfare assistance," he told the Senate. "Take
that away and the children are blown to the winds."

Besides health and welfare, the other key jurisdictions of the
Finance Committee are tax policy and Social Security. Moynihan
did support the tax increases in the 1993 Clinton deficit-reduction
package; he also helped broker the "nanny tax" reform,
streamlining the system for employer payment of Social Security
taxes for household employees, and raising the threshhold from
$50 to $1,000 a year. But he has not weighed in seriously on the
big issues of tax reform. Moynihan's main recent contribution
to the Social Security debate was his oddly bipartisan embrace
of the downward adjustment of the Consumer Price Index.

To the horror of many mainline Democrats, he promoted Michael
Boskin to head the CPI commission. But the "Boskin Commission"
was stacked with economists who had already made up their minds.
It was not a scientific process, but an exercise designed to provide
an imprimatur for cutting Social Security outlays. Moynihan may
be right that Social Security needs to be cut back, but as an
intellectual it is surprising that he was willing to preprogram
the result by endorsing a commission headed by Boskin.

Nor has the other commission that Moynihan has headed—on the Central
Intelligence Agency—come up with a realistic program to reform
it. Granted, reforming the CIA may be a hopeless task, but Moynihan,
who had flamboyantly called for abolishing the CIA in the early
1990s, now sticks to lambasting the CIA for its miserable performance
in gauging Soviet capabilities and intentions. In his foreword
to the commission's March 3, 1997, report, Moynihan, in high Wilsonian
dudgeon, quotes his friend Edward Shils's warning against "the
torment of secrecy." Moynihan observes that "a culture
of openness can, and ought to, evolve within the Federal Government."
Unlike most government reports, Moynihan's foreword is beautifully
written; like most government reports, it is longer on the failings
of the system than on measures to correct them. And like many
of Moynihan's elegant pronouncements, it is without political


At the end of the day, Moynihan's two decades in the Senate have
capped a distinguished career as a public intellectual, but have
not enhanced the influence he already enjoyed as an academic and
policy advisor. He has used the Senate for every intellectual
purpose, except legislating. Moynihan was certainly in the advance
guard in the liberal rethinking of welfarism, of the Third World,
and the Soviet threat. But when he sought to reverse ground, and
defend what was good in the welfare state, or attack the excesses
of the national security state, he has been curiously impotent.
It is tempting to count this failure as just another variation
on the current isolation of American liberalism. But even as a
traditional liberal, in the liberal heyday, Moynihan was more
successful as critic than architect.

Despite his frustration with both the Clinton White House
and the Republican Congress and his strange lack of legislative
impact, Moynihan's own political fortunes have never appeared
more prosperous. His Senate seat remains impregnable; in Miles
To Go
, Moynihan recounts his smashing victories over his opponents
in recent elections with victory margins running over two million
votes: "I carried Dutchess County, seat of the Roosevelts.
In four presidential contests, FDR never did."

Moynihan has also begun to be canonized as a public figure. In
March, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday, the Wilson
Center held an all-day seminar on his life and books that was
attended by academic luminaries and political associates from
around the country. George Stephanopoulos recently told the New
York Times
that while he has no intention of challenging Moynihan
in 2000, the "Moynihan model is an outstanding model. . .
. One day, yeah. I think senator's a great job." If anything
could snap Moynihan out of his current funk, it might be the specter
of a Stephanopoulos succession.

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