Politicians and pundits are now trying to discern what message to President Carter may have been delivered at the Democratic midterm convention in Memphis-and what bearing it will have on the course he hopes to chart for the country during the next two to six years.
The message of Memphis may very well be the simple fact that a message was indeed sent and that the president was forced to receive it. A recent Post editorial ("Reflections on Memphis," Dec. 12) focused on the challenge raised by liberals to the administration's plans to move toward a balanced budget by reducing federal human-services expenditures during the next fiscal year. Regrettably, The Post dismissed a liberal-backed conference resolution that would have endorsed federal spending "in no case less than the current services budget" as a lazy person's way of setting a standard of performance for the Carter administration. The real business at hand, The Post warned, "should be that of participating with intelligence and discrimination in the budget-cuting and program-deferring that must occur."
What The Post failed to realize was that the real intention of the liberal effort in Memphis was to force the administration to allow the kind of participation that The Post desires. The fight against inflation and any movement toward a balanced federal budget must not occur without a broad national dialogue regarding national priorities and available strategies. The midterm conference is precisely the type of forum in which such a dialogue should have been initiated; however, opportunity for meaningful debate was not allowed until after liberals and labor exerted strong grassroots pressure on the national party leadership.
The coalition that raised the issue of the 1980 budget in Memphis was an improvised one and one that was at a procedural disadvantage. Forty percent of the midterm delegates supported the liberal position, and liberals would in fact have won the vote except that, in the face of heavy administration lobbying, many otherwise sympathetic delegates did not want to vote for what would have been interpreted as a repudiation of the president.
Overall, liberals scored a victory. Their intention was not to defeat or embarrass the president, but to send him the message that their support cannot be taken for granted. Forty percent of the vote was sufficient for that purpose, especially in light of the fact that the entire Michigan delegation, a majority of the New York delegation and numerous delegates in Ohio and Pennsylvania all voted for the liberal position. Liberals flexed their muscles convincingly in the key industrial states that the president cannot afford to lose in 1980.
No one, including liberals, has a perfect strategy for combatting inflation. But we are able at least to identify the nature of the beast. The most significant causes of inflation are structural, particularly in areas such as energy and agriculture. Defects in those areas will not be easily resolved, and liberals are still undergoing the dynamic process of intellectual and political reorientation necessary to find proper long-term solutions.
President Carter needs to make an immediate effort to include liberals more forthrightly in the decisions of his administration. Liberals are ready to help identify waste and to set priorities with regard to the budget. But they have also clearly stated that military expenditures cannot be given sacrosanct exemption from close scrutiny, and that to the extent cuts in human services must occur, they cannot be made indiscriminately and without proper justification. The White House has not acknowledged these important distinctions, and as long as it does not, the president will fail to win the confidence of liberals.
The Democratic Party's real strength lies in its progressive tradition and its commitment to Franklin Roosevelt's Economic Bill of Rights. President Carter's failure to give any indication of more than lip-service devotion to that commitment-and not liberal laziness-poses the greatest threat of urging upon the Democratic Party what The Post has called "a nationally perilous set of values and principles."
Liberals are beginning to respong to the nation's economic challenges.
At the midterm conference, liberals and labor laid the groundwork for a working relationship that will enable a new, resurgent liberal coalition to move forward into the 1980s. In history's eyes, President Carter will fail in his leadership of this country unless he moves to incorporate the emerging liberal response into the strategies of his administration.