The Moderate and the McCarthyite

by Corey Robin on October 23, 2013

In the New York Times today, John G. Taft, who is the grandson of Robert Taft, makes his contribution to the growing “Oh, conservatives used to be so moderate, now they’re just radicals and crazies” literature that The Reactionary Mind was supposed to consign to the dustbin of history. (You can see how successful I’ve been.)

Having written about and against this thesis of conservatism’s Golden Age so many times, I don’t think it’s useful for me to rehearse my critique here. Instead, I’ll focus on one important tidbit of Taft’s argument, in the hope that a little micro-history about his grandfather might serve to correct our macro-history of conservatism.

Here’s what Taft says:

This recent display of bomb-throwing obstructionism by Republicans in Congress evokes another painful, historically embarrassing chapter in the Republican Party — that of Senator Joseph McCarthy, chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, whose anti-Communist crusade was allowed by Republican elders to expand unchecked, unnecessarily and unfairly tarnishing the reputations of thousands of people with “Red Scare” accusations of Communist affiliation. Finally Senator McCarthy was brought up short during the questioning of the United States Army’s chief counsel, Joseph N. Welch, who at one point demanded the senator’s attention, then said: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” He later added: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

There is more than a passing similarity between Joseph McCarthy and Ted Cruz, between McCarthyism and the Tea Party movement. The Republican Party survived McCarthyism because, ultimately, its excesses caused it to burn out. And eventually party elders in the mold of my grandfather were able to realign the party with its brand promise: The Republican Party is (or should be) the Stewardship Party.

According to Taft, McCarthy’s “anti-Communist crusade was allowed by Republican elders to expand unchecked” and it was ultimately forces like his grandfather who put that crusade in check.

Let’s turn to the Wayback Machine, shall we?

First, it’s important to remember that in 1946, the year McCarthy was elected to the Senate, Taft was the leader of the conservative Senate Republicans who were eager to use redbaiting to help Republicans get elected. Taft had no compunction about claiming that the legislative agenda of Democrats in Congress “bordered on Communism.” That kind of talk helped put the entire Congress back in Republican hands for the first time since 1930. So forceful—and out there, ideologically speaking—was Taft’s leadership that after the election the New Republic editorialized that “Congress…now consists of the House, the Senate, and Bob Taft.”

Second, Taft was the author of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, one of the most infamous rollbacks in twentieth century American history. (Far from being a genteel defender or “steward” of tradition, as Taft the grandson suggests, Taft the grandfather aggressively sought to counter the New Deal. When he ran against Eisenhower for the Republican nomination in 1952, Taft was the candidate of domestic rollback, not accommodation, including rollback of such policies as the Fair Employment Practices Commission, which required companies receiving government contracts not to discriminate on the basis of race.)

Among Taft-Hartley’s many provisions was the prohibition of closed or union shops, which paved the way for states to pass “right to work” laws and other anti-union legislation of the sort that we’ve seen many right-wing state legislators pushing since 2010—particularly in those states where both elected branches of government were suddenly in the hands of the Republicans, thanks in no small part to support from the Tea Party.

In addition, the anticommunist provision of Taft-Hartley was one of the more potent pieces of legislation contributing to the developing atmosphere of Cold War hysteria around communism. That provision mandated that all unions seeking the protections of the Wagner Act had to have their leaders take an oath affirming that they were neither members nor supporters of the Communist Party or any other organization seeking the overthrow of the United States government. That provision provoked a wave of red-baiting and red-hunting within and around the labor movement, which proved to be a kind of social corollary to what the government was doing in and around the executive branch.

Taft was not the opponent or even just the helpmate of this repression; he was a leading agent of it. More than three years before anyone outside of Wisconsin had even heard of Joseph McCarthy.

But on the question of McCarthy himself, the record is clear: Taft did not merely “allow” the man and the ism to dominate; Taft actively coddled, encouraged, and supported him and it at every turn.

As early as March 23, 1950—four weeks after McCarthy’s famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia—Taft gave McCarthy his firm support, telling McCarthy, “If one case [accusing a State Department official of being a Red] doesn’t work out, bring up another.” And added, for good measure, “Keep it up, Joe.”

When Truman attacked McCarthy’s speech—no amateur when it came to red-baiting, Truman called McCarthy “the greatest asset the Kremlin has”—Taft responded in kind, accusing Truman of being “bitter and prejudiced” and of “libeling” McCarthy, who was “a fighting Marine.” (Asked whether he had indeed libeled McCarthy, Truman responded, “Do you think that is possible?”)

While the Tydings Committee conducted its hearings about Communists in the State Department, Taft denounced the hearings as a “farce” and a “whitewash,” and pushed for even more aggressive inquisitions into subversion of the executive branch. As late as 1952 Taft would be harping on the issue of Communists in the State Department. He claimed that Dean Acheson had welcomed the Communist takeover of China because “in the State Department there’s been a strong Communist sympathy, as far as the Chinese Communists are concerned.” Sensing a major political opportunity in the coming presidential election of 1952, Taft said, “The only way to get rid of Communists in the State Department is to change the head of the government.”

In 1951, however, Taft pulled back —after it seemed that McCarthy had gone too far, accusing George Marshall on the Senate floor of aiding the Communist cause. That was in June. In October, after temporizing for months in response to a wave of negative publicity, Taft inched away from the senator from Wisconsin. He said:

I don’t think one who overstates his case helps his own case.

There are certain points on which I wouldn’t agree with McCarthy. His extreme attack against General Marshall is one of the things on which I cannot agree.

But within weeks, Taft reversed course. In response to a wave of letters from complaining fans of McCarthy, Taft issued a correction in which he downplayed his disagreements with McCarthy (“I often disagree with other Republican senators”) and reaffirmed his support: “Broadly speaking, I approve of Senator McCarthy’s program.”

Just in case there was any doubt about that, Taft personally endorsed McCarthy’s reelection bid during the Wisconsin primary of 1952, claiming that “Senator McCarthy has dramatized the fight to exclude Communists from the State Department. I think he did a great job in undertaking that goal.” He even campaigned for McCarthy—despite the fact that McCarthy never returned the favor by endorsing Taft.

And on at least one occasion (there might have been more), Taft quietly passed information to McCarthy about possible subversion in the State Department, suggesting to McCarthy that one employee deserved “special attention.”

By the time McCarthy was censured by the Senate in December 1954—not because of Robert Joseph Welch’s eloquent pleas but because he had turned on the Republican leadership and the Eisenhower administration, who no longer needed him—Taft had been dead sixteen months.

This was the man they once called “Mr. Conservative” who is now being held up as the paragon of moderation. To paraphrase Woody Allen: a moderate Republican is a right-wing reactionary plus time.

(I should clarify that this post is not meant to pin the entire blame for McCarthyism or the larger atmosphere of redbaiting on conservatives; liberals and Democrats more than contributed their fair share, as I argue in my book Fear: The History of a Political Idea. I just wanted to set the record straight here regarding the GOP.)



ezra abrams 10.23.13 at 10:45 pm

nice post
PS: how about a “like” button, so i don’t have to clog up the thread with this silly post ?


Lee A. Arnold 10.23.13 at 11:09 pm

John G. Taft does not appear to know the more RECENT history of “moderate conservatism” either. He writes in the NYTimes, “…somehow the current generation of party activists has managed to do what no previous Republicans have been able to do — position the Democratic Party as the agents of fiscal responsibility.”

I have been arguing in these comment threads, for over three years, exactly how this could be accomplished, and what the political fallout was likely to be. And it happened.

Even worse for the Republicans going forward, Mr. Taft typically doesn’t see that the current predicament was programmed by Ronald Reagan, and there may be no way out for them.

How can this blindness persist? One thing I didn’t understand until very recently is that a part of the GOP’s dysfunction may not be possible to undo: there is a real existent, a sort of group cognitive bias, studied under the rubrics “motivated social cognition” and “cultural cognition” (topics with an older history that have resurfaced recently in the study of climate-change communication). They are reinforcing their beliefs, in the face of fear and uncertainty, This is enormously important, both to understanding social science, and to putting the Republicans out of business.

As I wrote here three years ago (in advance of the 2010 midterm election) the GOP may do very well in the midterm election, but that is okay: that success is in fact the next requirement. After the Democrats pushed things as far as they could by passing Obamacare, it was necessary for the GOP to regain a little political power, for the next step in the GOP’s demise. And this is also what happened. I still think it remains true; it does not matter if they make electoral gains. The current GOP is so egregious, so against the flow of history, that more success in the voting booth will finally work to demolish them.


marcel 10.24.13 at 1:56 am

I recall something similar in Germany in the early 1930s: although it took over a decade, there can be little doubt that the electoral/parliamentary success of the NSDAP was the necessary precursor to its complete demise in 1945.


George Marcus 10.24.13 at 2:10 am

I hold the failure of Obama and Reid to repeal Taft-Hartley against them. It would have required radical action; they seem incapable of that.


Palindrome 10.24.13 at 2:33 am

Eisenhower’s diary records his disdain for the right wing of his own party. He actually uses the phrase, “the most ignorant people now living in the United States”. He privately railed against the constraints that this group placed on his freedom of action in foreign policy (for example, viz Taiwan). But he accepted it, because they were his base and they helped him win. Better to ride the tiger than to dismount and face his wrath, I suppose. Logical from a self-interested perspective, but disastrous for the nation.

I think the only difference between then and now is that today the inmates are running the asylum.


David (Kid Geezer). 10.24.13 at 3:30 am

@ezra: seconded. I’ve long wanted a like button on Crooked Timber. Sometimes a commenter, in a long or short comment, just nails it and indicating ones approval/admiration is all that is necessary.


Collin Street 10.24.13 at 3:53 am

I think the only difference between then and now is that today the inmates are running the asylum.

Napoleon II: Electric Boogaloo, as Karl Marx put it.


godoggo 10.24.13 at 4:05 am

I guess it’s taboo for me to ask what the purpose of… oh, never mind.


Meredith 10.24.13 at 6:31 am

What ezraabrams@1 said.


bad Jim 10.24.13 at 6:33 am

For many of our fellow citizens, a high level of fear is a constant. When we’re confronting a commonly recognized threat, like the Axis, or to a lesser degree the Soviet Union, or crime, or terrorism, it may appear reasonable. At other times it’s practically comical: even if the debt and the gays and health insurance reform are hiding under your bed, there’s not much, practically speaking, that they can do to you. It doesn’t matter; the task of their leaders is to put a name and a face to their fears.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.24.13 at 7:23 am

“It doesn’t matter; the task of their leaders is to put a name and a face to their fears.”

I don’t know, I listen to AM radio sometimes, and I get the impression that what they sell is not fear but outrage. Yesterday, for example, I heard some minor AM radio personality ranting and raving (for hours, I presume) about bureaucrats ignoring the warnings about the problems with the obamacare website, failed stress tests, something like that.

Outrage, a righteous indignation. I think that’s just a feature of the two-party system.


Tim Wilkinson 10.24.13 at 10:53 am

A worthwhile bit of record-straight-setting. When McCarthy’s somewhat peripheral role in the (2nd) Red Scare is understood, some other things come into focus too. To quote an old comment of mine:

‘McCarthyism’ is a highly misleading label. McCarthy was a product of the Red Scare (which had been under way before the war, too) – a kind of blowback. It was HUAC that aimed at opinion formers such as screenwriters and at the general public such as low-level state employees, while McCarthy was a true believer who aimed at the army and the government. His popularity and attacks on the Truman admin. was useful to the Republicans in opposition, but once they got into power, they considered him a thorough nuisance and in IIRC 53 he was dispreferred, then investigated and generally smeared (couldn’t happen to a nicer fellow). He was increasingly discredited through 53 and even Murrow piled on. He was finally censured and his career ended (and possibly only then, if at all, was he driven to serious drinking). In a way, McCarthy’s brief ascendancy put a brake on ‘HUACism’. He also serves to obscure that phenomenon in popular history – the classic ‘rogue operator’ story.

If the Red Scare is to have a figurehead, it should be Hoover (John Edgar, that is). In relation to the campaign against the unions, and the post-War project of killing off the Left and centre-Left in the US, Hoover looms large. In fact, AFAICT he was the single most powerful figure in domestic US politics (contrued broadly) in the C20th. And he was of course a rabid right-winger in traditional politico-economic terms as well as in ‘social’ terms – (his anti-homosexual stance almost certainly involved a high degree of hypocrisy and projection, perhaps especially his preoccupation with homosexuals’ vulnerability to blackmail – ask Meyer Lansky and the OSS/CIA – and it’s at least possible that the same applies to his anti-black racism).

Something that’s often ignored in the historiography of union-breaking in the US is the way the union movement was handed over to the Mafia (‘Cosa Nostra’) and thus both hollowed out and discredited. Hoover presided over that, as well as earlier attacks on the unions, becaused he was of course in the pocket of organised crime as well as probably subject to blackmail by it, and probably most importantly, inclined favourably toward it (and very disfavourably toward unions) by his quasi-fascist outlook and temperament.

The supposed G-Men, on Hoover’s orders, never bothered the mafia during his 50-year reign, and though it seems hard to credit, the very existence of a national syndicate was quite effectively officially denied throughout that time (see recent threads about private belief v common knowledge – the denial of Cosa Nostra’s existence is an excellent case study.)

‘The Godfather’ (film), which was quite a novelty and a revelation at the time , didn’t come out until he was out of office (or on his way out, can’t recall exactly), which I personally don’t think was a co-incidence though I don’t claim to be able to trace exact causal paths.

I could go further into the ‘tinfoil’ territory of the role played by the Mafia alongside the OSS-CIA and Hoover’s FBI in the not-so-cold Cold War – mentioning for example Gladio in Italy as well as assassination attempts on Castro and probably others, and less sensationally but more importanty from the persp. of US domestic history, their truly ‘free market’ approach and its role in corrupting the US economy and body politic generally, but I’ll stop there before I invite too much sniggering about serious mental illness. (It’s hard to accuse someone of ‘paranoia’ on the basis of idle and dispassionate comments about one set of people being out to get another set of people 50 years ago and thousands of miles away, but it can be done.)

Anyway, I’d be really interested to see CR cover this kind of territory (maybe he has already done so somewhere).

(Excuse overuse of parentheses. I’m trying to cut down but just can’t seem to help myself (though mostly avoid nested brackets, at least). I should probably edit them out, but (with respect) it’s too much trouble for blog comments.)


rea 10.24.13 at 11:42 am

I hold the failure of Obama and Reid to repeal Taft-Hartley against them. It would have required radical action; they seem incapable of that.

It certainly would have required radical action–something on the order of using the 82nd Airborne to disperse Congress.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.24.13 at 12:07 pm

“using the 82nd Airborne to disperse Congress”

Well, presidential candidate Barack Obama was promising something called “Employee Free Choice Act”, back in 2008. When he became president in 2009, his party enjoined large majorities in both House and Senate, so it seems that the 82nd Airborne would not have been necessary. So, where’s the Employee Free Choice Act?


godoggo 10.24.13 at 12:26 pm

Instead of just a “like” button, how about thumbs up and down buttons? That would increase efficiency greatly.


Jonny Butter 10.24.13 at 1:01 pm

I hold the failure of Obama and Reid to repeal Taft-Hartley against them. It would have required radical action; they seem incapable of that.

Attributing incapability to them assumes that they wanted to do something but couldn’t. I’m sure they very much didn’t want to do anything radical, either of them. They have that Washingtonian split-the-difference-no-matter-what disease. In DC itself, it’s called, without a speck of irony, ‘being smart’; in the rest of the world it’s called moral idiocy. Notice that it isn’t just sausage-making we’re talking about but the ‘meta’ mistake of assuming the middle course is ipso facto always best.


Barry 10.24.13 at 1:46 pm

Mao Cheng Ji 10.24.13 at 12:07 pm
” Well, presidential candidate Barack Obama was promising something called “Employee Free Choice Act”, back in 2008. When he became president in 2009, his party enjoined large majorities in both House and Senate, so it seems that the 82nd Airborne would not have been necessary. So, where’s the Employee Free Choice Act?”

In addition to ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ buttons, we need a ‘go back to f-ing high school and this time please *pass* civics’ button.


Lee A. Arnold 10.24.13 at 1:49 pm

Jonny Butter #16: “Attributing incapability to them assumes that they wanted to do something but couldn’t. I’m sure they very much didn’t want to do anything radical, either of them.”

I think this, in turn, assumes that they know what to do. I doubt it. I don’t think it is in their intellectual framework. The basis of economic policymaking is still to suppose that Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan were/are correct with regards to government spending and deregulation. No well-known economist would speak against this, even a little, until very recently, and you can count them on the fingers of one hand. The Democrats still have the same economic theory as the Republicans, though the Democrats seem to be willing to give a few more pennies to the poor.


Theophylact 10.24.13 at 1:54 pm

Why should simple agreement with a post merit even a byte’s worth of space? If you have something to add other than a vote, do it.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.24.13 at 3:11 pm

@17, would you like to explain your comment? Or are you just being constipated, because that’s what it sounds like. In that case, don’t bother, take care of yourself…


adam.smith 10.24.13 at 4:02 pm

Well Mao, could you explain how Obama/Reid should have passed EFCA?
Best I can tell is that any explanation requires either 50 Senate votes to completely abolish the filibuster or for people like Specter and Lieberman to vote for EFCA. I’d be curious about any even remotely plausible scenario where either of those could have happened.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.24.13 at 4:38 pm

So, they teach you about Lieberman in your f-ing high schools?

Like I said, the president’s party had large majorities in both houses, and overwhelming advantage in popularity. What else do they need, a direct intervention from the Mighty Angel of Revelation?


adam.smith 10.24.13 at 5:00 pm

So you can’t provide a realistic scenario, I take it.
What they do teach you in a good civics class is that party discipline in the US Congress is generally relatively low and that especially in the Senate, leadership has very little means to enforce party discipline. You also learn that many Senators are very attached to the traditions of the Senate, making it incredibly unlikely that you could abolish the filibuster (maybe weaken it, e.g. for appointments, but abolish for legislation? no way). Finally, in a very good civics class, you’d learn the difference between a President and a Prime Minister and why the former can’t govern the same way the latter does.

What else do they need, a direct intervention from the Mighty Angel of Revelation?

60 Senate votes to pass contentious legislation.


Pseudonymous McGee 10.24.13 at 5:19 pm

Putting my $0.02 in against a “like” or “agree” feature in the the comments. I like CT because it features discussion heavy on fact and logic; mere indicators of popularity wouldn’t add anything useful, and may even hinder fair assessment of arguments.


Trader Joe 10.24.13 at 5:22 pm

Just as practically – had they pursued EFCA it likely would have been at the expense of the ACA. Despite majorities there were many Democrat senators (and representatives) that felt they were sticking their neck out for the ACA but would have viewed the EFCA on top of that as a sure way to lose their subsequent election – the two Democratic senators from Virginia would come immediately to mind and a handful of others who found either coat-tailed Obama in 2008 or who were in hitorically “Red” states that flipped to Obama that year.

Its also useful to remember that in 2009 or even early 2010 unemployment was quite high and hadn’t really begun to fall. EFCA would have been painted as “pro-union” and a “job killer” about as fast as the bill could get printed…by the time the data could be marshalled to show how this wasn’t so it would have been a tough bill for public support. Typical Blue states wouldn’t have needed an EFCA as much as the typical Red states would have tried to oppose it.


Harold 10.24.13 at 5:43 pm

Organized crime was brought in to fight “Communism” (i.e., labor rights) in the USA and in Italy:

Repeal of Taft Hartley used to be in every platform of the Democratic Party. I don’t know when they started leaving it out. I doubt the younger generation of Democrats has even knows what the Taft Hartley bill was or what it did.


adam.smith 10.24.13 at 6:49 pm

@Harold @26 – the Pierson/Hacker “Winner Takes all Politics” book has a plausible account of how Democrats reacted to the increasing importance of money in politics in the late 1970s, early 1980s by looking to other sources of especially monetary support – not least Wall Street, of course. Labor and economic justice issues became less important in the process.


bemused 10.24.13 at 7:44 pm

Perhaps a nit-pick, but “Far from being a genteel defender or “steward” of tradition, as Taft the grandson suggests, Taft the grandfather aggressively sought to counter the New Deal” seems a bit of a stretch. The New Deal, circa 1933, doesn’t seem to qualify as tradition in 1948.


Natilo Paennim 10.24.13 at 7:49 pm

I’m dubious about the “Democrats can’t ever do anything if they don’t have a super-majority” line that comes up so frequently in this quarter of the internet. Republicans didn’t have super-majorities during the Cheney regime, so how did they manage to get so much done (the answer from the “realist” camp is of course “9/11”, but even that requires a great deal of hand-waving to get from underpants to profit)? How did LBJ get the civil rights acts passed? Sure, people were sad about JFK, and worried about riots, but there’s more to it than that on a political level. Why didn’t Obama keep *any* of his non-Ledbetter promises to labor after his election? Why didn’t he even try? Was he really sitting in the Oval Office, moaning about how he couldn’t do anything without two supermajorities? Just how dumb do you think we are?

To the OP: I’m pretty sure John Taft’s politics are significantly to the left of the Republican mainstream, given his championing of same-sex marriage rights and general pragmatic, do-gooder mien. I have no idea what ultimate political aspirations he might have, but the article above certainly seems like it is aiming for a reconquista of the moderate Republican tendency. If that means whitewashing his grandfather’s Red-baiting, clearly that’s something he’s willing to do.


adam.smith 10.24.13 at 10:35 pm

I’m dubious about the “Democrats can’t ever do anything if they don’t have a super-majority” line that comes up so frequently in this quarter of the internet.

So if that position is so dubious, why can’t any of the people who believe Obama should have gotten EFCA passed provide even a rough outline of a strategy how he should have done that. As for “Democrats” – you’re pretending like that’s a homogenous group. Again a reminder that the Democrat’s supermajority in the Senate included such well known supporters of labor as Arlen Spector, Mary Landrieu, and Dan Nelson (and the list goes on quite a bit).

Obviously it’s not true that Democrats can’t do anything and Obama could likely have done more for labor. He did put good, pro-labor people on the NLRB using recess appointments in exactly the type of move – which would have made a substantial difference had SCOTUS not nixed the appointments. But he could likely have, e.g., put up those names earlier and gotten them confirmed. He could probably have done more on hours&wages inspections etc. But specifically the EFCA act – I just don’t see how that’s supposed to have happened.
As for LBJ – a very different Senate, with 67 Democrats and a range of moderate Republicans – the Voting Rights Act e.g. was co-sponsored (!) by 64 senators.
GWB – he expanded executive power greatly (and disastrously) – but what are his great legislative achievements that go against deeply held Democratic ideals, especially in terms of domestic politics?


Jonny Butter 10.24.13 at 11:21 pm

Lee A.A. #18:

I think [what I, Jonny Butter, said at 16], in turn, assumes that they know what to do. I doubt it. …..The Democrats still have the same economic theory as the Republicans, though the Democrats seem to be willing to give a few more pennies to the poor.

Certainly don’t want to nit pick too much, but I think we were saying almost the same thing. I never assumed that these dems ‘know what to do’. The comment I was responding to implied that Team O wanted to do something radical, in any and all senses of that word, but were (or ‘seemed’) ‘incapable’ of doing it – implying some sort of wan, liberal, impotence. I simply pointed out that being radical is not, as you put it, in their ‘intellectual framework’. I said that, in fact, what they really are is more anti-radical: they elevate ‘compromise’ to a value unto itself, no matter what the content of the compromise. That, at the very least, is not inconsistent with ‘have the same economic theory as the GOP but moderate it a little (i.e. ‘throw a few extra pennies’).


Tim Wilkinson 10.25.13 at 3:43 am

I’d always envisaged school civics courses in te US as more to do with inculcating patriotism than teaching citizens about the realities of horse trading and the role of party whips etc. But that was only a vague impression, based on the high degree of idealistic fervour among USians and other only slighty less vague impressions about flag worship and loyalty oaths.

I’d have assumed that there ways of getting things through if it’s really thought desirable. The block on this bill’s passage was – supposedly – just a handful of Dem Senators. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the whole charade of ‘nearly’ passing legislation to be undergone in the knowledge that some such last-minute stumbling block exists.

I would still have thought that if the will were really there, Senators could be prevailed upon in one way or another given the willingness to expend sufficient political capital. Assuming not, one might try to accommodate their objections. If those objections are likely to be mere pretexts, some kind of bluff-calling strategy would seem to be indicated – in this case, manoeuvre them (if necessary) into publicly declaring support in principle, and to stte the ‘sole’ objections that prevent them from passing the bill as formulated. Then remove the basis of those objections.

Ii have little idea how realistic any of this is in the US context geneally nor specifically in this case. It does seem, from a cursory investigation (using the Wiki method of research) that at least some of the objections could have been met without completely hollowing out the bill. For example, some Senators claimed to stand on the principle of the private ballot. But the main objection wasn’t (didn’t appear to be, anyway) to holding a private ballot, but to all the practices that go along with it as things stand (employees being interrogated, employers having massive campaigning advantages, etc.). A secret-ballot process might have been devised that avoids all that. This assumes that such a process would still be acceptable to all concerned on the labour side – there my be reasons why a secret ballot even of the most procedurally impeccable kind would still be unacceptable – in which case it might be thought undesirable to leavet that as the only issue remaining to be addressed by future legislation, on the grounds that it would be very hard to pass a future bill which simply removed secret ballot requirements without packaging that measure together with others.

The other objection I came across was the usual ‘this is not the right time’ – a harder nut to crack, partly because it’s usually a mere pretext for inaction. But perhaps some deferred-effect clause; or even – and I have no very clear idea of how this coul be done – some kind of conditional trigger for the provisions to come into effect – 4 quaers of positive growth or something, I dunno.

As is presumably obvious, I’m pretty ignorant about how this stuff all works in practice in the US – so much of this may be hopelessly unrealistic. But I do know that thing can very often be got done when there’s a real will to do them, and that anyone who was serious about introducing a measure as gad-damn cammunist as this would have expected a fight.

So I, fwiw (not all that much, I freely concede), am also unconvinced that the obstacles really were insurmountable.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.25.13 at 5:58 am

“the answer from the “realist” camp is of course “9/11″”

My recollection is that they passed a massive tax cut well before the 9/11.


ajay 10.25.13 at 8:31 am

I’m dubious about the “Democrats can’t ever do anything if they don’t have a super-majority” line that comes up so frequently in this quarter of the internet. Republicans didn’t have super-majorities during the Cheney regime, so how did they manage to get so much done (the answer from the “realist” camp is of course “9/11″, but even that requires a great deal of hand-waving to get from underpants to profit)? How did LBJ get the civil rights acts passed?

They managed to get so much done because
a) in the case of the Bush tax cut of 2001, they got some Democrats to vote for it as well (EGTRRA passed the senate 62-38). The 2003 cut passed 50-50, but the Democrats were unwilling to filibuster it.
b) in the case of the PATRIOT Act, they got lots of Democrats to vote for it as well because 9/11.
c) entire books have been written about Johnson and the Civil Rights Act. Read ’em. Suffice it to say that the situation in 1964 was very different.

So, by saying “Well, Bush got lots of stuff done why couldn’t Obama?” you are in fact suggesting that Obama could have got lots of Republicans to vote for EFCA, or could have persuaded them not to use the filibuster, or could have capitalised on the legacy of his assassinated predecessor to lever it through a Senate with 67! Democratic Senators.

In all these cases I would suggest that you are high.


ajay 10.25.13 at 8:32 am

I should add that, of course, in Bush’s second term he didn’t manage to get much done. He got virtually nothing done.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.25.13 at 10:19 am

@34, your argument amounts to “if something has not been done, that’s because it couldn’t be done”, which is, of course, trivially and boringly correct, in this deterministic universe.

” or could have capitalised on the legacy of his assassinated predecessor”

Right, that’s the only thing a politician can capitalize on.


Tim Wilkinson 10.25.13 at 12:29 pm

ajay – my impression was that only 1 Rep vote would have been required in the Senate to force the measure through – which isn’ ‘lots’ by any standard.


ajay 10.25.13 at 1:35 pm

your argument amounts to “if something has not been done, that’s because it couldn’t be done”, which is, of course, trivially and boringly correct

No it doesn’t you tiresome person. It boils down to “in this case it wasn’t done because it couldn’t be done, and the historical examples of things being done that you have cited are not good parallels for various reasons”.

Tim Wilkinson, on the other hand, makes a good point: with 59 Democrats in the Senate, they only needed one Republican to break a filibuster. Not “lots”, as I said.

Even so, I don’t think they would have got him.

And this is, of course, assuming that every single Democrat would have voted the party line on EFCA. This wouldn’t have happened either. Four Democrat senators actually said publicly during the EFCA debates in 2009 that they would not support the bill.


adam.smith 10.25.13 at 2:17 pm

Tim – well that’s not actually true. The Democrats had a very, very brief window with sixty votes to invoke cloture after Specter switched parties – for those they had to bring in both the sick Kennedy and Byrd. Both Specter and Blanche Lincoln opposed the EFCA (as did Ben Nelson, but he’d likely have voted for cloture). The idea that a Republican would have voted for this is ludicrous. Inspite of all their attempts, Democrats couldn’t get a single Republican vote for a healthcare reform developed by the Heritage foundation. If you think a Republican was ever going to vote for EFCA, you don’t understand the loathing of unions in the Republican party.
So then you say Democrats should have gotten their act together and convinced Specter and Lincoln, if necessary make some concessions. Which is exactly what they tried to do: – now there is a reason why Lincoln faced a primary challenge and people just hated Specter, so this wasn’t exactly a piece of cake and you don’t want to give up too much of the original EFCA (card check, was, after all, a core part of this). Then Kennedy died, the January 2010 special election disaster happened in MA and left Democrats flat-footed. (And no, more Obama involvement would certainly not helped, if anything the contrary). So I’m really not seeing how this is supposed to have worked. I know lefties often don’t care about the details of legislative process — but if you’re going to make arguments based on the passage or not of specific bills, you can’t ignore such details.
You can make a larger argument that unions are getting very little out of their support for the Democrats in national elections and that they should focus elsewhere – that’s the argument many on the left of the labor movement have been making for a while. While there are good counter-arguments to that, I’m mostly convinced. But you have to accept that the downside is that you’re standing even less of a chance to pass important legislation at the national level.


Manta 10.25.13 at 2:40 pm

I may be wrong, but all this “the Dems needed some Reps votes” is true only because of the filibuster: and to get rid of the filibuster they did not need 60 votes.

Thus, the Dems want to preserve the filibuster.
Why? Obviously, because they like the consequences of the filibuster: among those consequences, having some excuse for not passing EFCA.


Mao Cheng Ji 10.25.13 at 4:08 pm

“No it doesn’t you tiresome person.”

Sure it does. For example: “in the case of the Bush tax cut of 2001, they got some Democrats to vote for it as well (EGTRRA passed the senate 62-38).” If a quintessential Republican legislation inevitably gets enough Democratic votes, and a quintessential Democratic legislation can never get enough Republican votes, then the blame falls on the Democratic party, and its leaders. Which is exactly what comment 4 that started this sub-thread said.

Either they are incompetent, or they bullshit their voters, using the “can’t do anything without a supermajority” line as an excuse. Incidentally, even when they do have a supermajority, there is always some mean and stubborn Democratic senator to blame. So, it’s probably the latter. And you’re happily buying that bullshit, you gullible person.


Tim Wilkinson 10.25.13 at 4:32 pm

adam.smith – sorry, what did I say that wasn’t true again? I corrected ajay’s claim that ‘lots’ of Reps would have to vote for it; you’ve pointed out that a Rep did in fact come over to the Dem side at the right time, and that there was even a (supposed) effort to hash out a deal while the conditions were right. Cue, one would have hoped, daily strategy meetings, feverish negotiations, marshalling of every Machiavellian stratagem in the Obama team’s arsenal…

You provide an account of how, not why the Dems failed to take their opportunity. “This wasn’t exactly a piece of cake” sounds like a case of that rhetorical device (I think it may even have a name but can’t recall what) where you try and make something sound like an understatement when it actully isn’t. Of course pushing through such a caammyanist measure was going to require a determined effort, but it would be chess played on a standard 2-dimensional 8*8 board, surely?

As I suggested above (in between copious caveats manifesting an un-lefty-ish concern about the detailed reality of US legislative process), there is a lot more to the recognition issue than merely the particular proposal you refer to as the ‘card check’.

This document, found via Wikipedia, explains the issues in detail and AFAICMO convincingly, and would certainly have been known to the legislators concerned. It suggests that the problem is not the private ballot itself but the circumstances in which it currently operates – some of which mean that it’s not even properly called ‘private’. Allowing that a properly secret ballot could be required would have spiked the criticisms based on ‘workplace democracy’ concern-trolling, without substantially watering down the proposals’ impact, IIUC. No doubt indomitably convinced cock-up theorists have an answer for why a deal wasn’t reached, but if so let them formulate it before we inspect just how convincing it is, compared to the ‘token effort’ theory, for example.

(I haven’t bothered with all the caveats this time as no-one ever pays any attention to them. Consider this another acknowledgement that I’m not really that familiar with all the relevant minutiae – but neither have a heard a clear statement of why the commitment to passing the key elements of this crucial landmark legislation couldn’t have been honoured given sufficient determination and effort.)


Khan 10.25.13 at 10:38 pm

Speaking very very broadly, I’ve always felt that the difficulty in passing liberal or progressive legislation boils down to one of the basic differences between the right and left: the right wishes to resist change, or undo recent change (for varying values of “recent”); this makes party unity almost trivial for them. The left is united in their dislike of the status quo, but is fractured on how to change matters, or on by how much.

Throw in the psychological and cultural differences between the factions – conservatives tend toward dogmatism, liberals toward bending-over-backwards acceptance of differences – and legislative failure becomes even more likely. The dogmatic tendency of conservatives makes picking up Republican votes an uphill battle; the inability of Democrats to take off the gloves then loses the battle.


Tim Wilkinson 10.26.13 at 2:05 am

Harpers, by contrast, adopted a sharper focus on the issue, and seemed disinclined to rely on speculative theories about the disorganised, reticent and overly conciliatory brainset of centre-right greasy-pole-climbers.


adam.smith 10.26.13 at 5:36 pm

Thanks Tim for the Harpers article, I think it’s an outstanding piece, but I read it as basically confirming what I’ve been saying all along. Sure, there is some vague “Obama doesn’t do enough” grumbling from union organizers in the piece – and as I’ve said before, in general terms I think that’s legitimate, but it wouldn’t have helped with the EFCA. As Harbers makes quite clear, the main obstacle to EFCA is a super-effective business lobby which helps to make sure that no Republican moves out of line (not that they would have been likely to anyway) and has Blanche Lincoln coming out saying she’ll oppose cloture. At that point the bill looks pretty dead to me because you have 61 Senate votes opposing cloture. And I’m not sure what type of “Machiavellian” tactics you think Obama could have exerted on Lincoln, Senator of a state that he lost by 20%(!).
And because the Bully Pulpit comes up every time the President is exhorted to “do more” about a topic, have a look at this Monkeycage post: with about a dozen links to political scientists discussing how ineffective said pulpit actually is especially for contentious topics.


adam.smith 10.26.13 at 5:37 pm

sorry, that should read “41 votes opposing cloture” of course.


Tim Wilkinson 10.26.13 at 9:43 pm

Well I’ve made some suggestions as to how the thing might have been salvaged; regarding the Machiavellian tactics, I don’t know enough about the realities of gloves-off party discipline in the US to say exactly. What tsruck me in that piece was:

The best assessment of Obama’s mind-set I’ve heard so far was offered by Glenn Spencer at the Chamber of Commerce. “The administration is working on a lot of serious issues, the kind of things that make a legacy — health care, the economy, immigration reform,” he said. “This is just a distraction. It will split the Senate right down the middle, and you still may not win. [Obama’s] not going to ignore the unions. But will he sink a lot of political capital into a radioactive issue like this? I don’t think so. Congress has noted the lack of engagement. They know what his priorities are.”

Which directly addresses the issue at the root of this particular comment strand.


pseudalicious 10.29.13 at 12:06 pm

that The Reactionary Mind was supposed to consign to the dustbin of history.

In hindsight, I wish you’d titled your book, They’ve Always Been Nuts.

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