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 admirers.

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 accomplishments.

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 family."

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 him.

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 Crimson."

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 System, 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 surrender."

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 modest.

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 legs.



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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