The vise, partially self-constructed, that is suddenly squeezing President Carter into political paralysis was recognized in this Wednesday morning-after concern by his advisers: what to do with Rose Garden tactics that no longer work.
Carter is inflexibly bound to his commitment, once so political beneficial, not to hit the campaign trail until the hostages in Iran are released. "We've just got to find some way to campaign more effectively, without breaking the president's promise," one senior White House aide told us. But how? "You'll be the first to know when we figure it out," was the sarcastic but mirthless reply.
The president's heaviest political thinkers are not close to "figuring out" that solution or pushing leftward toward traditional Democratic positions following the New York and Connecticut repudiations. There is, then, the specter of successive big-state primary election defeats that would not deprive the president of renomination but could cripple him for the fall campaign.
The rigid system now used to select presidential nominees adds to the inflexibility. It is all but impossible for a new candidate to emerge or for anybody to pry committed delegates away from Carter. The final frozen aspect of a potential Democratic nightmare is that the president and his tough young subalterns surely will never quit the race, no matter how devalued the nomination becomes.
Carter's spectacular political recovery late last year, based on foreign crises and Sen. Edward Kennedy's pratfalls, did not solve his basic political problems. He remains essentially unloved in the Democratic Party, lacking fervent volunteer support. His chief backers are federal officials, mayors and lobbyists, who love the president because he controls the federal money tap.
In New York, Carter's organization was infinitely superior to Kennedy's bumblers but contained a telling flaw: telephone banks, there as elsewhere, were manned by paid workers ("Kelly Girl politics"); there were no volunteers. This basic sterility in the Carter campaign was overlooked while he was winning primaries and running away with the polls.
Even after partriotic support for the embattled president began fading a few weeks ago, anti-Kennedy sentiment kept the president on top. That sentiment subsided the last five days before the New York-Connecticut balloting when Kennedy's tenacious campaigning won over voters, at least temporarily.
According, pro-Carter Democratic politicians around the country insist that the president must show himself to the voters -- a switch sure to bring ridicule. While leaving a Tuesday night victory interview in New York, Kennedy heard a television newscaster announce that Carter would, after first declining, attend a Wednesday might congressional dinner in Washington. Kennedy, off-camera, reacted with a mighty horse-laugh; there will be more of the same if the president really leaves the Rose Garden.
Horselaughs will proliferate if Carter follows widespread advice to soften unpopular positions. Political advisers want him to come out for formal recision of the famous United Nations vote on Israel. Congressional allies want him to dump the balanced budget and embrace liberal Democratic dogma: less defense; more social welfare, aid to cities and pork barrel.
Is that possible? "If you think so," one senior aide told us, "then you don't know what Jimmy Carter is all about." If he is indeed inflexible, the president will go into the coming big-state primaries with no strategy other than hopes that the Northeast's apparent approval of Teddy Kennedy's character will not travel westward.
"I'm afraid we're in for a long spring," one Carter adviser snapped when he learned of Kennedy's big win in New York. With not only Jewish voters defecting but blue-collar workers also going over to Kennedy, polls in other states showing landslide Carter leads could be as meaningless as were New York's.
Unless they figure a way out of his vise, Carter's operatives concede possible loss of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and California -- while still winning the nomination. That could mean a Democratic nominee politically mangled even worse than Hubert Humphrey in 1968.
Carter's amazing resurgence last year shows the advantages of incumbency. But a second resurrection will require some initiative by the president, not merely another call to the colors in the face of national humiliation. For the momemt, neither he nor his advisers know how to get out of the Rose Garden or how to leave there the policies that have estranged his party's traditional constituency.