The DIRECTIVE has been coming out of various quarters of the administration for a couple of weeks now. The president himself, the vice president, John White, who is the Democratic Party chairman, and most recently Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland have given vent to it in one form or another. It is a message to the party fractious, the hypercritical and the superintendent, and it may be summed up as follows: Knock off. Meaning, knock off the cheap shots, the gratuitous insults, the unfriendly analyses . . . and, if you are a legislator, stop thinking you can oppose and thwart and generally twit the president of the United States without ther president's fighting back.
So far, so good. For if there is one thing that has grown slowly and painfully evident in Jimmy Carter's Washington over the past year and a half is that Mr. Carter and his program were suffering mightily from an absence of anxiety or awe on the part of his fellow Democrats on the Hill and elsewhere (including in his administration).Few seemed to feel that it was even mildly imprudent, let alone dangerous in any respect, to rake the president over the coals in public or tell him to go fly a kite as the spirit might move. You announced that the president and all his works were no damned good - and then turned up at the White House to demand your two-week all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii and a free set of dishes.
Well, that obviously is now meant to be coming to an end, and not a minute too soon, in our humble judgment. But the satisfaction we take in thus turn of events is tempered by the absolutely clonky way in which it is being undertaken. Consider Mr. Bergland himself, explaining to some reporters the other day how the new dispensation is expected to work. After the fall elections, Mr. Bergland said, the president intends to make hostile or carping legislators pay a price in patronage. He waxed vivid on the ways in which he and his colleagues might set about punishing the errant legislators.
Now, as an act of political combat this is more or less the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. For the problem with the Bergland Doctrine is fundamental and incurable. It is that a Bergland Doctrine should never be enunciated in the first place. To formulate it out loud is to vitiate any force it might have. It looks like bluff . . . and huff and puff. It transforms and overdue and crucial aspect of administration policy toward the Hill into another solo by the Big Bad Wolf. Talked about, boasted about - especially, God help us, in advance - it simply will not be taken seriously.
That Mr. Carter needs to stop being Mr. Nice Guy in relation to the barons of Capitol Hill is beyond dispute. He needs desperately to begin using the patronage at his disposal in a sophisticated, productive way - to make opposition cost something, and support be worth a legislator's while. But it does not need to be done crudely. And by itself, in any case, it will not provide an answer. The president needs to assert his authority and will to succeed in a way that is plausible and therefore consequential on the Hill. When the politicians in his party are in the proper degree of awe of him you will know it.Unfortunately, threats about crackdowns and the rest will probably only delay the time, if ever, that any of this comes about.