Jimmy the Engineer

By Meg Greenfield
Tuesday, April 28, 2009; 6:57 PM

[Editor's note: This op-ed was originally published on April 20, 1977.]

We are having a policy riot in Washington just now - you name it, Jimmy Carter's got a plan. Energy, the economy, disarmament, human rights, welfare and housing are among the subjects for which he has already either pronounced a new policy or ordered one up by a fixed date. Well, what is so novel about that? You ask. Isn't it what all new Presidents are expected to do? The answer is that Carter is doing it differently - radically differently - and the difference accounts for much of the battlement and resistance he is meeting in Washington.

You need to begin with this simple fact: "Policy" is one of those awe-draped, violin-music words we use continually in this city - without really quite meaning it. Yes, people flatter themselves that they are making "policy" in the endlessly boring meetings they attend all day long. And they will even pore over the reams of tax-exempt, foundation-generated blather that is written on the subject ("Policy Choices for the Seventies," "Policy Questions Before the Nation"). But when it comes right down to doing something, or even proposing something, you generally end up with a fairly comfortable and familiar collection of policy add-ons: an extension of this bill, a revival of that program with a couple of modifications, a way-out innovation that you figure you'll never get enacted in the next five Congresses - and a catchy name, like the New American Revolution, to cover it all.

That, we are learning, is not the Carter way. For even though some of the elements of the programs he has announced have been proposed before, there is a curiously apolitical and genuinely radical aspect to his method of policymaking. It is back to the drawing board. All bets and assumptions are off. It is as if nothing had ever happened before. And policy - treasured policy - once arrived at is not to be toyed with; it is not to be compromised by dumb considerations such as that it might make the chairman of the relevant congressional committee wild or cause the leaders of an affected labor union to retaliate in ways too horrible to contemplate. Nope, policy is policy - sorry about that boys.

You hear a certain amount how this is the doing of Jimmy the Baptist, the inevitable behavior of a man who is preoccupied with doing the Lord's work and whose spiritual confidence leads to a certain political arrogance and preachiness. After all, the theory goes, if God is on your side, who needs George Meany? I don't buy this theory at all. I think we are in the presence of something else: Jimmy the Engineer. The better and worse and more and less successful features of his presidency in the first few months, it seems to me, have a lot to do with that approach.[TEXT OMMITTED FROM SOURCES] is first the conception of issues as problems for which there are - must be - technically feasible solutions. Carter has a very thin sense of the impossible. In his White House lab, according to those who attend policy sessions, he has a detached way of stripping things down to their component parts, regarding no single part among them as indispensable or holy, and demanding that his Cabinet officers or aides come up with a new or reassembled machine that can do the job he has in mind.

Carter, it is said, doesn't mind how many parts need to chucked out. You say this advisory commission has been functioning for 12 years, one way or another, and that its prestigious old commissioners are accustomed to having a say-so in settling these disputes? Too bad. They're costing money and pouring glue all over the issue. Get rid of the commission. Trotting around Washington, asking participants about these sessions, I heard one theme recurrently. It is that is there is one thing Carter can't abide, it is being told that for some nontechnological, nonsubstantive reason he can't do something he thinks he should. You can tell him the program's design is flawed, but don't tell him that Russell Long won't let him have it.

It should surprise no one that this is, to put it mildly, disturbing people and disrupting patterns all over the capital. Nothing is sacred and nothing is safe. Sunset laws, which amount to a kind of mandatory retirement for lots of people's favourite programs, and zero-based budgeting, which makes similar threats on an annual basis, are favored by Carter. He will point out that although he made campaign commitments to the poor, he made no commitments to substain the particular bureaucracies now dealing with the poor. His approach is clinical, orderly and - in Washington cultural terms - absolutely revolutionary.

Carter has no feeling for institutional political necessity and little visible appreciation of the human, folksy, disorderly relationships that are an important feature of political life on the Potomac. And because he is inclined to view his proposals and policies, once they have been designed, as the best and most efficient means of solving a problem, he seems to be at loss to understand the trimming and trading needed to get things done. It's one thing to have to explain, which Carter is willing to do, why the particular policy machine he has crafted is the one for the job. But it is another to countenance the demands of people who don't understand that the machine comes whole - that it is intolerable to say the Congress will let you build it if you forgo the hydraulic system that some chairman doesn't like.

The engineer's approach can, of course, be overstated. There is, in addition, the uncomplicated fact that Carter is in Washington terms as outsider, a man unaccustomed to viewing all the policy prospects around as just old-hat stuff, bits and pieces of bills that people have been trying to pass since anyone can remember. That gives him, in my judgement, a welcome sense of urgency and possibility. And so does the fact that he is really running on a distinctively private, personal clock. He got there, as he likes to say, on his own, and he has some very firm views about where he wants to be when in terms of accomplishment in office. By fall he will have done this, by spring he will have done that. If Congress chokes on all the proposals, well, he will just have to keep trying - or so the reasoning goes.

So far, it seems to me, the engineering feat has been remarkable and produced some genuine pluses - such as, for example, an arms-control position that cut through the tired old unambitious arguments and a willingness to be radical and tough on some of our most pressing domestic troubles.But conflict is clearly on the way. And it is also true that Carter had been mainly in the business of enunciating policy - as distinct from making things happen in accord with it. For that he will need either to be able to prevail over the Congress and the bureaucracy or get them to cooperate. If you want to know where the action is going to be in the next few months, it is going to be in the President's manner of facing that choice.

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