The Return of the Grassroots

It should mystify even the most impartial observer of American politics that a Democratic president, blessed with a Congress dominated by Democrats and elected in part on his environmental stances, would be unable to oversee the passage of a moderately robust law on climate and the environment. It certainly bothers Columbia University’s Nicholas Lemann, and in the pages of The New Yorker he goes searching for the reasons for The Big Fail.

This is well-trod ground, even for The New Yorker: Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza won deserved plaudits for his 2010 story describing how the White House and the Senate committed a series of errors that led to the failure of a bipartisan bill backed by Lindsay Graham, Joseph Lieberman, and John Kerry. (“As the World Burns.”) Lemann, for his part, wants to compare the success of the environmental movement in the 1970s with its modern failure.

In “When the Earth Moved,” Lemann suggests that the failure has come from a change in tactics:

Even as the environmental movement has become an established presence in Washington, it has become less able to win legislative victories. It has concentrated on the inside game, at the expense of efforts at broad-based organizing.

Lehmann describes the efforts of the environmental movement to play the Washington Game, depending on lobbying, contributions, and corporate alliances. For whatever reason, the movement has failed in this effort. There is only one place it is likely to go: back to the grassroots.

Lehmann’s conclusions should serve as a wake-up call to all who shepherd political initiatives through the Washington maze, even if the left has discovered it first. The winners of future political contests in a nation increasingly fed-up with moneyball politics will not those best able to gin up some ersatz populism, but those who concentrate on getting people to care enough to act.

Regardless of your political stripes, you should regard this as a good thing. Change through the empowerment and activation of the individual is, after all, at the heart of democracy. The only people likely to hate this are Bill Gates, George Soros, David Axelrod, and the Koch Brothers.

The Problem with Jimmy Carter

“The Passionless Presidency”
James Fallows

The Atlantic
May 1979

James Fallows was a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter for most of Carter’s single term in the White House. More than just a technically adept writer, Fallows came to his job in January 1977 a true believer, someone who saw in the clearly intelligent Georgian a leader who could lead the nation into the future.

Fallows’ disillusionment was gradual, apparently without rancor, but was utter. After citing a long list of Carter’s political, intellectual, and managerial failings, Fallows offers a telling comment that gives illuminating background both to Carters character and to his recent activities.

These clues told me part of the answer, but there was one part missing, the most fundamental of them all. Carter’s willful ignorance, his blissful tabula rasa, could—to me—be explained only by a combination of arrogance, complacency, and—dread thought—insecurity at the core of his mind and soul.

The arrogance of willful ignorance, according to Fallows, led Carter to treat history as Henry Ford did – as so much bunk. Even in the White House, Carter felt that the lessons of history beyond those of Watergate and Vietnam were irrelevant. At best, this led him to repeat the mistakes that others had made before him, in energy, in tax reform, in his hollowing of the U.S. military, and in his fateful mishandling of his Cabinet.

That same arrogance lies at the root of Carter’s misunderstandings about Israel and the Palestinians. Whatever the virtues or vices of his views, they were based less on a full apprehension of the facts than on opinions. Given Carter’s history in and with the region, the ignorance can only be willful.

All of this is important not because it is necessary to pull Jimmy down a peg, but because in the story of Carter’s failure as president lie lessons that are essential for the entire American electorate. While we may debate whether it is correct to judge a presidential candidate by his extracurricular behavior, we must recognize that good character alone is insufficient qualification for the highest office of the land.

Fallows’ review Carter shows us that we need a president who is a great manager as well as a great leader; who can work with the Beltway establishment without being subsumed by it; and above all who is prepared to learn from history to avoid the mistakes of those who have gone before.

Cicero once said “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be forever a child.” Fallows’ retrospective of Carter, published even before the Iranian hostage crisis and the election of 1980, suggests a slight modification of that. “To be ignorant of what happened before you came to Washington is to be forever a failure.”

It is a harsh verdict, but it serves every voter to heed it.