08.29.09

Why Democrats Hate Summer

Obama’s mid-year train wreck puts him in the inglorious company of previous Democratic presidents. How the heat derailed Johnson, Carter, and Clinton, too.

For recent Democratic presidents, in summertime the living isn’t easy. President Barack Obama’s bucolic vacation at Martha’s Vineyard takes place after two extraordinarily difficult months, and was interrupted by the death of his close friend and ally, Sen. Ted Kennedy. The virulent protests at the town-hall meetings have damaged public approval for the president’s health-care plan. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of a preliminary review into CIA interrogation techniques opens up politically dangerous questions about national security that Obama was hoping to avoid. A broken Republican Party is now full of energy and hope. Many liberals express frustration with the administration for its willingness to compromise on key issues. The fate of health care remains uncertain. After encouraging comparisons to Lincoln and FDR, it is not inconceivable that Obama will emerge from his first year with an economic stimulus bill and not much more.

After encouraging comparisons to Lincoln and FDR, it is not inconceivable that Obama will emerge from his first year with an economic stimulus bill and not much more.

Summers past do not offer a sunny guide. In August 1968, President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey watched as their party disintegrated into civil war at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Inside the convention hall, insurgents demanded a peace plank to the party platform and protested the war in Vietnam. Outside the convention, thousands of activists gathered in Grant Park. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered police to be tough with the protesters. Humphrey found himself winning the party’s nomination just as police pummeled and tear-gassed protesters in the streets and marshals inside the convention hall roughed up and dragged away TV network correspondents on air. Americans watched aghast as Walter Cronkite, personification of Middle American moderation and calm, voiced outrage at a party that seemed out of control. Richard Nixon was smiling.

Fast forward to the summer of 1979: President Jimmy Carter already had experienced one bad summer in 1977, when his strong approval ratings started to plummet as his close adviser and friend, Office of Management and Budget Director Bert Lance, became embroiled in a financial scandal, tarnishing Carter’s image as a pristine reformer. By the summer of 1979, conditions had worsened. Unemployment rates were high, inflation rose, and OPEC had increased oil prices several times. On July 15, Carter, whose approval ratings had plunged to less than 30 percent, tried to uplift the national mood and his political fortune by delivering a speech in which he called on Americans to change their consumption patterns and accept the need for sacrifice. Though he didn’t use the word, it was dubbed his “malaise” speech because he appeared to blame the problems afflicting the country on the public’s bad psychology. His speech gave him a blip in support as addresses to the nation billed as answers to crises usually do, until within two weeks he purged his Cabinet, once again giving the impression of disarray and confusion. Americans reacted negatively. They saw a president who could not and did not want to lead, instead pointing the finger at them. By late-August, voters were expressing even stronger disapproval of Carter. And Democratic congressional leaders urged Sen. Ted Kennedy to challenge Carter in the Democratic primaries. Ronald Reagan was smiling.

President Bill Clinton governed through his own bad summer in 1994. The president initially thought that when he proposed health-care reform he would be able to achieve the domestic change that had eluded so many presidents before him. But Republicans and several sectors of the health-care industry mobilized in response to his plan by depicting the program as a big government takeover that would destroy the health-care system and open the door to socialized medicine. With legislation tied up in several congressional committees, the summer had begun in June with the Health Insurance Association of America re-airing its infamous “Harry and Louise” ad campaign. In June, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell informed House Speaker Tom Foley that the committee would not be able to produce a bill. On July 23, during a rally in a national administration bus tour for health-care reform, first lady Hillary Clinton was confronted by a mob of angry protesters who booed and screamed as she tried to speak. “There is an old saying that I like,” she said, “which is if you don’t have the facts on your side, yell.” But the protesters would sidetrack the rest of the tour. “This issue got away from everybody,” lamented Maryland Democrat Benjamin Cardin. “It got away from all of us. And I don’t think anybody anticipated the amount of resources that would be marshaled against us.”

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell tried to save health care by devising a compromise in early August. House Democrats feared the compromise would not satisfy their constituents and stood by a more liberal plan. Mitchell said his colleagues would work six-day-a-week sessions until obtaining a vote. But Republicans prevented any progress, believing that defeating the proposal would energize voters for the midterm elections. The House failed to produce legislation, as they had promised to do by mid-August. During a meeting of Democrats on August 18, the tensions became so severe that Sens. Kennedy and Bob Kerrey got into a yelling match. The opponents of a health-care overhaul launched one final round of blistering television ads and letter-writing campaigns to Congress. A bipartisan group of congressional moderates proposed a compromise, but it did not generate sufficient support. On August 25, the Democratic leadership sent legislators home and promised to try again in September. But that never happened. Instead, Mitchell pronounced health-care reform dead. Newt Gingrich, soon to be Speaker of the House, was smiling.

Fifteen years later, even as the economy has slowly started to gain steam this summer, health-care reform is once again on life support. President Obama has invested his political capital and reputation in health care and lost control of the debate. The administration severely underestimated the intensity of conservative grassroots activists as well as Astroturf operations, and overestimated their ability to win over Republican support. During the one critical moment when Obama had the nation’s attention at a press conference in July to articulate his plan, with many Americans waiting to hear him deliver the same kind of powerful speech that voters saw when he tackled the issue of race on the campaign trail, the president instead delivered a lackluster, meandering performance and uttered a poorly thought-out comment about a white Cambridge, Massachusetts, policeman acting “stupidly” in the arrest for disorderly conduct of distinguished black Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates.

When President Obama returns from the Vineyard, he’ll have to shake off these summertime blues. If not, this summer will be another for the history books, followed by a winter of our discontent.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.