Surveying the disarray of the Carter energy program, the President's men gathered at the White House the weekend of Oct. 15-16 and demonstrated how little they had learned from nine months of power by coming up with "The Jordan Plan."
It is named after its principal author, top presidential aide Hamilton Jordan, whose strengths and weaknesses it mirrors. It mobilizes Cabinet members to barnstorm the country to generate public support for the program. Trade negotiator Robert S. Strauss, a rising power in the administration, was designated by Jordan as "chief whip" to get his Cabinet colleagues moving.
For the White House to seek public support while the energy program's fate is being decided on the Senate floor recalls 1964, when candidate William Scranton began shaking hands at Chicago commuter-train stations after the Illinois delegation pledged to Barry Goldwater had arrived at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco. "It is an act of desperation, born of naivete," said a veteran Democratic senator, who has loyally supported the Carter program, in describing The Jordan Plan.
Such naivete would be understandable nine months ago but today reveals the permanence of the Carter political reflexes.
Jordan, a brilliantly intuitive politician, in time of trouble reverts to what he does best: take to the streets in imitation of the memorable campaign that won Jimmy Carter the presidency. That the energy plan itself might be remodeled was never discussed at the White House.
Instead, Cabinet members were instructed to slip an exhortation on energy, prepared by White House speech-writer James Fallows, into all speeches.
Commerce Secretary Juanita Kreps will address an energy forum in Frankfort, Ky., Oct. 28. Housing Secretary Patricia Harris will add words on energy while dedicating a public library in Michigan City, Ind., Oct. 30. Transportation Secretary Brock Adams will preach energy conservation to the American Trucking Association in Las Vegas Nov. 2. Climbing such excursions, the nation's governors will be at the White House Nov. 3-4 to talk energy.
Does all this accomplish anything? Hardly anybody outside the Carter inner circle thinks so. "It's like a hot bottle for a seriously ill man," one administration official told us. "It may make him feel better but it doesn't help."
But this official believes "The Jordan Plan" fails because it comes too late. He contends it should have begun last April, when Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill talked the President out of going over the heads of Congress. There is also feeling within the White House that Jordan, not Secretary of Energy James Schlesinger, should have been selling the program to the nation from the start.
Such second-guessing within the White House relates to the six months of advocacy following the unveiling of the program rather than the 90 days of drafting preceding it. While confessing blunders in selling it, the President's men do not even consider that the program is just plain unmarketable.
But that possibility is widely considered beyond the gates of the White House. The President's allies in Congress believe any energy program might be difficult to promote because of complexity; they regard the Carter plan, based on raising taxes, as patently unpalatable to the public.
For that reason, a Senate Democrat who has fought hard for the Carter program is contemptuous of The Jordan Plan, declaring: "I think it's a waste of time, absolutely ridiculous. It's not the people who are at fault; it's the program." He suggested to the White House last week that instead of dispatching Cabinet members to the grass roots, the President should withdraw his energy tax proposals from Congress.
Sen. Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.), a Carter supporter as chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, has privately told colleagues that passing everything the President wants would not nearly solve the energy problem. Jackson has proposed intensive government development of new energy sources, thereby stimulating the economy - an idea whose time seems to be coming on Capitol Hill.
But there was no talk at the White House of abandoning taxes and trying economic development. Instead, The Jordan Plan reverts to techniques more applicable to selling a presidential candidate than a presidential program. That ends up with Pat Harris's hawking the energy bill on the steps of the Michigan City library at the hour it lies on a congressional conference table, a spectacle that builds neither the President's record nor his prestige in this city.