. . . Lots of Democratic leaders are apparently advising you to be a "nuts-and-bolts" chairman concentrating on party organization and finances and staying as far away as possible from issues and ideology. But for the life of me I cannot see what good tinkering with the chassis is going to do if the party does not have someone at the steering wheel pointing it in the right direction. Without scorning nuts and bolts, you can best serve the Democratic Party by getting it back on the road to affirmative government directed toward the goal of a more equitable and equal society. You know well, from your labors for the Democratic Party over the years, that this is its historic role and its only reason for being.
The trouble today is that neither party stands for such affirmative government. President Reagan's inaugural one-line about government's being part of the problem is noteworthy mainly because he is head of government he calls the problem. President Carter, who spoke for the Democratic Party for four years, said much the same thing; his 1978 State of the Union message, for example, proclaimed that "government cannot solve our problems. . . . Government cannot eliminate proverty, or provide a bountiful economy, or reduce inflation, or save our cities, or cure illeteracy, or provide energy." That is about as good a way of running down the job a president is supposed to do as Reagan's one-liner, and together their statements focus attention on the long-range future of affirmative government.
The problem, I submit, is not the Republicans, whos capacity to botch up the economy is unsurpassed; the problem is what the Democrats are going to do when they take over at the end of the Reagan administration.
Let me suggest this political scenario to you: Assume the Reagan administration does exactly what it says it is going to do -- cuts taxes, increases defense expenditures and balances the budget (a sort of "millions for defense and not much tribute for anything"). This is going to mean so drastic a cut in social programs and so tragically explosive an increase in social tensions as to put the Republican Party back to its Hoover days.
What do the Democrats come back with? More of Carter's "government-can't-do," middle-of-the-road philosophy? But that just failed quite badly, and it is hard to see how it is gong to do better the next time. The danger this portends is not just to the Democratic Party but, more important, to the entire nation. For it is to the Democratic Party that most of the lower-income and discontented in our country look for hope and for help. President Johnson's administration ended in public disillusionment over the Vietnam War; President Carter's in public disillusionment over the helpless indecision. A third strike, a third straight Democratic administration failure, and today's public cynicism about government will seem like rosy enthusiasm.
I have read about every Democratic chairman from Jim Farley to John White, and I have known a good many of them. For me, the best chairman the Democrats ever had was Paul Butler, a man most people will probably not even be able to remember.
Butler ran the Democratic Party in the Eisenhower days and made it stand for something. He created an advisory committee of outstanding Democratcs who put together a progressive program as a Democratic rallying standard against the conservative administration. When the Eisenhower administration acted against the public interest, Paul Butler, together with his collaborator, Adlai Stevenson, spoke out in no uncertain terms. While the Democratic congressional leaders at the time, Speaker Sam Rayburn and Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, were trying to mute Democratic opposition to Eisenhower, Butler saw that the Democratic Party's positions were made clear for everyone to see. TIn this period of faltering Democratic foot soldiers, you ought to take a look, Mr. Chairman, at Paul Butler's record as a potential role model.
But whomever you look to as role model, please don't bite for the conventional wisdom (usually wrong) that the last election was a referendum against liberalism. Neither party nominated a liberal for president; the voters chose the conservative they thought meant it. And the Democratic congressional liberals all ran substantially ahead of their presidential ticket. When you lead our party back to office in 1984, I hope and trust the victory will be one for affirmative government and for liberalism. Only that will make it meaningful.