It is not just a coincidence that the next step in the political rehabilitation of Jimmy Carter - the impending veto of a public works appropriations bill for only the third time in history - follows in the footsteps of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The first two vetoes of the traditionally sacrosanct pork-barrel bills were Eisenhower's work, but there is no embarrassment at the White House about a populist Democrat emulating a conservative Republican. On the contrary, President Carter's aides now in the ascendancy want him to consciously shape the rest of his term on the Eisenhower model.
"Heavens," exclaimed one of the president's more liberal department officials when told of the White House thinking. "They can't be serious!" To copy the Eisenhower style would mean Carter's further alienating component parts of the Democratic coalition, who have viewed the president as much too conservative from the start.
But it also entails some inner conflict for Carter himself. While Eisenhower's style of ignoring pressure groups and dealing with electorate at large appeals to him, the president has a fetish for tidying up jagged edges of human problems with "comprehensive" legislation that delights liberal pressure groups - a practice quite foreign to Eisenhower.
The conscious use of the Eisenhower model in the Carter White House partly reflects the revisionist upgrading of his presidency now that the Harry Truman revival has run its course. "When he was president," Theodore H. White writes of Eisenhower in his new book "In Search of History," "the American people were never happier . . . The Eisenhower record, when squeezed down, tells of a superb foreign policy - a matchless record of clean decisions."
Key Carter aides, furthermore, see Eisenhower's America similar to Carter's America in its desire to catch its breath rather than embark on domestic initiatives or foreign adventures. Faithful to that mood, Eisenhower vetoed more important bills than any other president - charting a course oblivious to pressure groups.
Eisenhower defied convention and congressional prerogatives in 1959 by vetoing two successive public works appropriations bills, the second of which was overridden by Congress - the only one of 157 Eisenhower vetoes not sustained. Carter insiders admire that spirit and believe the president's big gest mistake in 1977 was to sign that year's pork-barrel bill instead of vetoing it.
Thus, what old hands in Congress perceive as a blockheaded inability and the White House to learn from the past is actually determination to atone for the missed veto in 1977. White House agents were intractable in dealing with Congress this year because they welcomed another chance for a Carter public-works veto.
This reflects a major underpinning of Carter's rehabilitation program conducted under the direction of senior White House aide Gerald Rafshoon. Jimmy Carter did not get to the White House by accomodating to the demands of pressure groups and has hunt himself by accomodation during his first 18 months in office.
Accordingly, the president's old aide from Georgia are pushing a strong and accomodation line at the White House against the accommodation forces led by Vice President Walter F. Modale. For example, the anti-accommodators lately have been spreading the word that the president through approves of Barry Bosworth, the anti-inflation jawboner who is public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of organized labor.
But one important Carter insider points out that while Eisenhower was national war hero who could defy pressure groups and maintain popularity. Carter never even commanded a submarine and enjoys no broad [WORD ILLEGIBLE] foundation. That means the president is vulnerable in defying constituency groups of a Democratic Party.
An equally formidable obstacle is president's compulsion to put together large, indigestible packages of [WORD ILLEGIBLE] legislation that do not seem compatible with a public suspicious of large government initiatives. Nevertheless there is feeling within the White House that the president must tame his own activist impulses to survive.
For some 25 years, the "unfinished social agenda" of the two Eisenhower terms was enshrined in Democratic demonology as the cause of social and economic woes. If a Democratic president now actually follows Eisenhower path, he will be proclaiming the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of standard liberal doctrine in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] of national support.