In this quarter’s issue of Dissent, history Prof Julian Zelizer examines the tension between Obama and the centrists and the liberal left of the Democratic Party with some contextual history.  The question is whether Nancy Pelosi can be to Obama what Robert Wagner was to FDR, or whether she will be what Ted Kennedy was to President Carter (funny that there is no mention of Reid, nor any of the Democratic congressional “leadership” during the 1990s, which was largely hapless). 

Basically, the theme is that the left pushed FDR to be competative in the realm of ideas and the president pushed legislation which mimicked that of his loyal liberal dissent.  Later the left successfully pushed Johnson on the domestic front, but Johnson pushed back in foreign policy, with the 1968 convention tearing the center-left alliance apart.  Carter then opted moderate to hawkish in defiance of Ted Kennedy.  The feud is described in some detail in the middle of the article, consisting of a flashback after the intro depicted a history I missed, probably because I was in high school on my summer break when it happened.

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.

The revelation though is in the FDR section of the article.  Even he had to be pushed, and often opted for compromise with conservatives even as he was threatening to stack the Supreme Court to get his way.  I’ve examined the differences between Obama and FDR in the past, and unfortunately I think Obama would just as well go the route of Carter, only for two terms.

The article then moves into familiar territory – Obama’s weak will with regard to health care reform and the stimulus.  Although the article ends on a note of hope not justified by any of the data presented, I do have to say I’m encouraged by his strong-arming of BP to put up a bankruptcy-immune 20 billiion escrow fund.  I just wish he’d put a leash on Rahm Emanuel, who I think has given the president some bad advice.