Scott Fitzgerald once mocked a man who “tried to get up a ship’s party on a ferry boat.” That was the story of the Democrats’ 1978 midterm conference in Memphis last December. Some signed on for a pleasure cruise and found themselves working a White House shift in the presidential boiler room—a shakedown cruise for 1980. The president, who was accused last summer of managerial incompetence, overmanaged a non-event—which made it an event of sorts. Dissidents in Memphis did not go away doubting Carter’s manipulative skills.

Of course, a midterm conference held by his own party is a no-win proposition for any president. If he doesn’t control it, he loses. If he has to control it, he loses. If he barely controls, or over-controls—and Carter did both—his very victory becomes an embarrassment. Given the rules, Carter did as well as he could, which was not very.

Once a candidate is chosen at a nominating convention, the whole gathering celebrates that candidate in a ritual of party healing. Defeated rivals are reintegrated into the campaign effort. But at a midterm conference (or mini-convention)—an anomaly introduced four years ago to cure even worse anomalies in the Democratic party—there is no overt competition with the official party head, and therefore no admitted healing process. Wounds fester, neglected; friends stab with smiles. Pols pretend they are not plying their trade. The White House army of two hundred or so had to claim it had turned out in force to “listen” rather than stage-manage. It was a very thin claim.

Consider the president. Security measures—perhaps overdone, with a memory that Memphis is one of those assassination sites starred on our political map—made the meager physical resources of the town revolve around Carter’s appearances on Friday and Saturday (press credentials only mentioned those days; suggesting, with good cause, that the official voting proceedings of Sunday did not matter in the manager’s eyes). But delegates did not share the cops’ priorities. When Carter was trundled from workshop to workshop, he had to sit there, partly ignored, partly insulted, partly lectured to. The rules of the game made him summon up a simper of attentiveness throughout, St. Sebastian pretending he likes nothing more dearly than arrows.

Carter’s long address on Friday night was earnest: he tried to be forceful—which is not his mode. His power tends to come in parentheses—where, say, Ted Kennedy’s marches with exclamation points. The heavy-handed promotional movie produced by Rafshoon did all the wrong things—pounding away with a song, speeding up the soundtrack so that Carter was seen in 33 1/3 while talking at a 45 rpm gabble. But the real problem in Memphis was not so much personal—Carter’s inability to deal convincingly with party backslapping sessions. It had more to do with the Democrats’ need to talk underdog ideology from an overdog position. There was endless discussion, from the podium and on the floor, of a struggle for the party’s soul. It was less a problem of soul than of turf—the need for a majority party to face the limits that go with that power. Lords of the manor make unconvincing Robin Hoods.

If there is one thing that unites conservatives and liberals at this moment in our political babble, it is the claim that Democrats are riding a new mood by capturing Republican issues. That, we are told, was the meaning of 1978’s elections. Budgetary stinginess, the birthright of the right, was voiced by the party of the New Deal, making it win power by a loss of principle. Even big business came bearing gifts to the Democratic incumbents or favorites, on the assumption that the power to be stingy with the poor (and generous toward defense industries and capital gains) is more important than the love of being stingy.

Some commentators think Democrats show a set of party skills denied Republicans. That is unlikely. There is simply no skill like an assured seat. Democrats respond to constituents best because they have a majority of the constituents and a lock on the constituent-servicing mechanisms of incumbency. In Memphis, many praised “the party of Franklin Roosevelt” as a way of criticizing Carter for planned cutbacks. (They will probably end up serving him in the long run, when he finds he cannot cut much anyway, and will say his own party would not let him.) The only ones who emphasized “the party of Lyndon Johnson” were Ted Kennedy and Mondale. Kennedy said budget cuts would tear the party to pieces, as the Vietnam war had. Mondale said failure to cut the budget would tear it apart, as Vietnam had. Each was trying to save the party from being Lyndon Johnson’s.

But ideology matters less for professional Democrats than does the role of the majority party. (We normally have an institutional majority party. The minority party endures, not by competition from a roughly equal status, but by being the majority party in certain enclaves.) Being the majority party is not easy. The broader the constituency, the harder it is to be both inclusive and consistent. Indeed a minority party has certain kinds of romantic advantage—freedom to sound principled, mobility to make raids. It has so little to lose. The majority party can grumble and squabble, but few want to break up a winning (if anomalous) combination. They have too much to lose—which is why, in the long run, the majority party loses it all.


Carter was criticized in Memphis for listening to the polls, to returns favoring Proposition 13 in its several guises. Claiming to speak for “the people,” the labor left and its allies went against what the people are saying in today’s polls. Carter had to listen, without any intention of heeding. President Eisenhower talked of the rhetorical advantage given Third World countries as “the tyranny of the weak”—which did not bother him, since he thought the threat mainly rhetorical. Memphis was, in party terms, a time for verbal tyrannizing by the weak.

The weak, of course, did not see it that way. Meeting at a chilly exit from the Memphis convention hall, Michael Harrington (with the sad, gray boyishness of revolution-gone-incremental) and Tom Hayden (in his prep-school tweeds) plotted for two minutes the overthrow of Carter from within: a future recession will lead to one of two things—wage and price controls, angering the conservatives Carter is pandering to; or no controls, and economic disaster. Jerry Brown will then dance feyly into the contest, and Teddy Kennedy will be given license to intervene without being called a spoiler. Done, neatly, and done.

It was a vision to console, after Hayden’s press conference, which was sparsely attended, and after Harrington had to call his off. Progressives at the conference had to settle, mainly, for dreams. Their large caucus Thursday night (the eve of the conference proper) showed why. The two Frasers—Don, the ousted Representative, and Doug, the United Auto Workers chief—were on the dais explaining what favors they had wrested from the National Committee (mainly the right to get new resolutions to the floor on Sunday). The crowd was restive. Ron Dellums, tall, black, and looking like Cesar Romero, asked for a spot on the dais, said “People are going to sleep in this room,” suggested that something be done, did not say what that might be, and left the dais. A resentful delegate asked why changes in the rules of procedure—to allow protesting voices and resolutions to be heard—could not be discussed until the last day of the conference. Another moved that the Frasers arrange with the DNC for a move to suspend the rules, on Friday night, in order to discuss the rules.

Don Fraser spoke against the idea mildly, and Doug Fraser spoke against it emphatically: “We are on the threshold of making a big mistake, I warn you.” Mike Harrington had the grace to look embarrassed as his fellows carried administration water to put out their own fires. Despite resistance from the dais, the floor voted overwhelmingly to arrange for a Friday-night suspension of the rules. Don Fraser promised, weakly, to work for it (weakly). Afterward, Doug Fraser, with his concave, shovel-pan, red face, said:

We have a written agreement with [party chairman] John White to let our petitions go to the top of the agenda—so long as we limit their number to what we had already mentioned. He can call it off now—say we didn’t keep our side of the bargain. That’s why I spoke against the new move, to show I wasn’t part of it. I have to make sure I’ll get a hearing—I’m going to run some tough language on health care past Hamilton Jordan tonight.

Turf-protecting is contagious.

The progressives’ “hard shot” was a resolution that would pledge the party to “an adequate budget to meet human needs, in no case less than the current budget for human and social services.” It was fashioned as a trap—if Carter’s people attacked it, they would be Scrooges; if they accepted, they would have to swallow their budget-cutting talk. As on most matters, Carter’s people—after harassing moves preliminary to the conference—tried onspot compromise to deflate protests. By Saturday night, the negotiations boiled down to one word—the White House would support the resolution if “critical” were substituted for “current” services. The Frasers could not give in; they had compromised too many other things to get a hard budget resolution to the floor. What, anyway, are “critical” services? It would depend on the crisis—or anyone’s definition of a crisis. No deal.


The White House, claiming the progressives were acting in bad faith, turned loose its awesome whip forces to say the resolution was just a cheap shot to embarrass the president. A reference to the Humphrey-Hawkins bill was inflated to a charge that Carter was breaking the law. Even the chairman, John White, professionally friendly, let his smile fade when he spoke against this resolution from the floor. He argued that “no cuts in current services” meant Carter could not cancel inefficient programs. I observed to him that the resolution’s sponsors said any redistribution of money among programs would fit its demand that the current level of expenditure be maintained. “The resolution does not say that,” White snapped. It does not preclude it, I answered. “You’re getting tricky.” He was getting tired.

By Sunday, White House forces were making promises to delegates, asking friends to speak against the budget resolution, calling its authors conspirators against their own president. It worked. Jim Wall, liberal editor of Christian Century, had earlier expressed misgivings over the planned cutbacks. But Sunday he told me he would vote against the resolution. Why? “It is improperly motivated.” Aimed at Carter? “Yes.” So this is a loyalty oath? “Call it a vote of confidence.” Wall’s delegation, from Illinois, was extravagantly confident—it voted against, 72 to 0.

At the outset the White House folk seemed all to be waiting for Teddy. They had packed the health panel with eleven people (including Joseph Califano and Stuart Eizenstat from the administration) to contain the danger of Kennedy’s appearance at that workshop. But Kennedy dominated the entire proceeding. He came with a carefully prepared speech (copies available to the press), program charts, and the distilled arguments of his long effort to create a national health plan. The moderator, governor-elect Bill Clinton of Arkansas, recognized the reality behind this pretense of panel discussion: he opened by saying that the panel’s subject had been changed to “the relative merits of Georgia peanuts and Massachusetts cranberries.”

After Califano read some figures, Kennedy rose to growing anticipation, cut off the standing cheers with repeated “Mr. Chairman” throat-clearings; then, head down over his text, tugged hard at the speech as if it were a tent peg. Toward the end, he took off his glasses, stepped forward from the podium, his shout carrying without the mike, and sailed off with the uptorn tent as his balloon, happy with rhetorical angers. The crowd was shouting too. Lester Kinsolving, designated jerk of the press corps, tried to scream and sneer at the same time: “And when do you announce your candidacy?”

Subsequent panel exchanges were jovial on Kennedy’s part (he hoped Eizenstat would speak to the president as he had to this audience about the needs of the poor), and snippy on Eizenstat’s part (“I don’t need to make speeches to the president of the United States”). Kennedy won big personally, but he created a trapped excitement going nowhere. He could promise health care without getting into the full debate on inflation. In the same way, the progressives’ petition to maintain social services did not add what most of them believe is a necessary corollary—wage and price controls. That would give too many hostages to administration spokesmen, stirring domestic myths that are the counterpart of our anticommunist fear in foreign affairs.

So Fred Kahn and Charles Schultze went without challenge when they dismissed controls at the inflation workshop (one of the two attended by Carter). Kahn, who bubbles volubly toward his audience, is a favorite with the press, winking code-word phrases like “deep fit of banana”—an appropriate device in more ways than one: most euphemisms are apotropaic, and Carter’s people want to cure inflation with turns of language, a kind of bluff and counter-magic. They attacked controls as if they were the Nixon controls—crassly imposed for electoral advantage and crudely removed when they had served that purpose. But Kahn (and Carter) promise controls without controls—controls by subtle threat, indirect reward, tax compensation, contract jiggling, verbal play (Kahn’s specialty). The American myth of individualism has bemused people with the view that our economy is not controlled. We have all kinds of uncoordinated controls—of the money supply, of tax revenue, of government contracts; of subsidized education and retirement and farming and drilling and arming and arts and scholarship and what not?

What we don’t have is a rationale for control, which would involve an admission of control—on the way to openness and efficiency. The present indirect, unadmitted, arbitrary controls are not only inefficient but self-crippling—as opposed to legislated controls, democratically aired and equitably arrived at. Kahn and Schultze won’t say that of course; if they did, they wouldn’t be where they are. But what mattered most at the conference was the inability or unwillingness of both the Frasers to say that. Even Harrington and Hayden skirted the topic; the left had to be “responsible,” Don Fraser told the Thursday night caucus. Why? To get defeated over one word in one resolution that made no sense standing alone? Meanwhile, the administration will ineptly control in order to fight controls, just as it arms to bring about disarmament.

Actually, arming-in-order-to-disarm got some vigorous criticism at the conference—thanks largely to Senator John Culver of lowa. Carter tried to signal his domestic and foreign priorities by attending just two workshops—the one on inflation and the one on disarmament. At the inflation workshop, he was lectured to by eight people: one question was directed elsewhere and, when the chairman asked for questions to the president, none were forthcoming. Before the arms control panel, Carter was asked three questions; but six questions went to others, mainly Culver, who made a very good case for the SALT treaty without the increased defense spending Carter’s people think necessary to placate the right. Carter at last had to quibble with Culver’s long and well-applauded statements. They were especially galling since the senator was Ted Kennedy’s roommate at Harvard and served for a while as his legislative assistant. Culver stole Carter’s own issue from him, forced Carter almost to attack his own disarmament goals. Not only was the president upstaged by a mere senator. The question many people asked themselves was: if Culver can do this to Carter, what would Kennedy do on the same platform?

The ranking of potential candidates, which had no formal place on the conference agenda, cannot be avoided wherever politicians gather. One thing Memphis did was reverse the perception of Carter held as recently as six months ago. Then it was said that he might have been a good candidate, but he was not much of a president. At Memphis, there was a grudging admission that he was holding his own as president, coupled with a wish (expressed even by some of his supporters) that he made a better candidate. Jerry Brown’s people, in and around the California delegation, were clearly pleased by much of what they saw. (The administration’s indirect response was to tell anti-California jokes: Why does it take fifteen Californians to unscrew a lightbulb?—One to unscrew, and fourteen to “share the experience.”) There was a covert regicidal air to every mention of Kennedy’s name.

John White kept representing the very existence of the Memphis conference as an act of great courage on Carter’s part. (Actually, he could not avoid it.) But then, when White spoke against the budget resolution, he said the future of such conferences was at stake. In other words, it is courageous for the president to risk criticism; but if any criticism actually occurs, the midterm conference will be discontinued. Some courage.

White would like to discontinue such an expensive and risky undertaking in any event. Only the progressives were presumed to want the thing to go on; and one wonders why. They went away boasting of a moral victory because their big resolution lost by only 60 percent to 40. But what would the resolution have done if it were passed? And to get it on the floor at all, the progressives had to mute their voices, control their own hotheads, beg and borrow from the administration. As I said at the outset, the most tangible gain from this whole exercise was for the White House team that got a trial run for the 1980 convention. Turf-protecting is a fruitless exercise on the other guy’s turf.

Then why gather at all? The answers I got from delegates who were glad to be in Memphis had little to do with national policy or presidential politics. Delegate A got appointed to the National Committee’s urban panel. Delegate B met a useful party official. Delegate C pushed his local project with state politicians conveniently gathered in one caucus room or a few hotel suites. Delegate D was a city official anxious to keep in touch with party activists. These concrete motives for being in Memphis should make us pause at the analysts’ lament over party decline and electoral apathy. America has always been a nation with low voter turnout, a function in part of size and heterogeneity. Our compromising, nonideological parties do not meet the crisis standard that musters an entire nation to the polls. The broadening of the electorate in recent years—admitting eighteen-year-olds, registering new groups of blacks, Chicanos, and Puerto Ricans—drives down the turnout statistics even when greater numbers vote. Easier registration is bound to include those less concerned or less conditioned to vote. America’s semipermanent minority party puzzles some by its ability to survive continual defeat. The delegates’ desire to be in Memphis may suggest that both parties are almost unkillable near their roots, where the party worker has special needs and ambitions to pursue. Even the majority party has tiny fiefdoms and enclaves with their own imperatives.

These minor forms of turf protection tend to strengthen turf protection at the top; so Carter weathered this conference as he has managed most of his crises, large and small, so far—the winner without the air of being a winner. Carter at midterm is at a stage that might be called congratulated peril or triumphant collapse. Camp David brought peace near, but not fully within grasp. China is almost recognized, at the price of having Taiwan almost abandoned (each claim is tempered with the other). SALT is almost concludable as a draft and almost unpassable by Congress as a treaty. Inflation is almost being fought, the budget almost cut. Through the veering winds of recent polls, Carter has set a tacking course; so his goals are sighted off somewhere to port or starboard, never straight ahead.

Still, the performance of the party’s left in Memphis makes one wonder what better course could be set. Put Kennedy in office, a liberal president with a conservative mood in the country—could he muster support for his health plan, for a SALT treaty? Carter does not want to fight inflation with controls on wages and prices. Kennedy probably could not even if he wanted. Nixon could impose controls for the same reason he could go to China more readily than Humphrey: left initiatives look less suspicious coming from the right. If that is the case, and if recession scares Carter, he may follow the Hayden-Harrington scenario by reaching for controls: he would find, like Nixon, that they not only work but increase his popularity. They would certainly increase it with the dissidents in Memphis, for whom controls were the love that dare not speak its name. In that case, the rest of the rebels’ scenario, involving Brown and Kennedy, would self-destruct.

Carter remains a cipher in his own exciting times, at a pause of risk and opportunity, less mysterious than dim. In Memphis, as part of Sunday’s full-court press over the budget resolution, Hamilton Jordan circulated in his respectable new blue suit, affable, chewing ice from a paper cup. When he threw his arm impulsively around a delegate’s shoulder, his hand landed right before my eyes. The fingernails were bitten deep into worried indentations. A parable?

This Issue

February 8, 1979