Politics

05.02.13

History, the GOP, and Green Lantern-Thinking: The Panama Canal Treaty

Yesterday I wrote that today's GOP "is simply not a mainstream political party in the traditional American sense. It is a radical oppositionalist faction, way beyond the normal American parameters both in terms of ideology and tactics." I don't think think this point even needs to be proven, but I guess some people do think it does. So it occurred to me yesterday afternoon, after reading some of your interesting comments (and pumpkinface, thank you for saying something nice about me, I was floored!) to try the following.

My thesis is that today's GOP is unique in American history, or at least recent American history, since the United States became the leading world power and its lawmakers started thinking about in those terms. So if you say I should prove that thesis, fine. It's a hard thing to "prove," and any conservative who wants to remain unpersuaded will remain so. But nevertheless, I aim to show by plucking some examples of some key congressional votes in recent US history that my thesis is correct.

I choose to start with the Panama Canal Treaty of 1978. Here was a Democratic president willingly giving up American sovereignty over something that we build and paid for basically because it was just time to do. Panamanians had been fighting for control since 1964. Carter just thought it was the right thing to do.

Debate started in the fall of 1977, Carter's first year, and continued into the next spring, when the vote occurred. April 18, 1978. This was a treaty, and ratification of a treaty, then as now, required a constitutionally mandated 67 votes.

The vote was 68-32 in favor. Here it is for your review. You will see that 52 Democrats voted for it, while nine opposed; among Republicans, 22 opposed and 16 voted yea (the remaining no vote was cast by an independent, Virginia conservative Harry Byrd).

The Republican yea votes came from a breed of politicians who sure don't exist within the Republican Party anymore: Jack Javits, Charles Percy, Mac Mathias, Edward Brooke, Lowell Weicker, Howard Baker...I could go on. You get the idea.

Important point: Opposition was ferocious. It was enormously controversial. This was one of the first fights on which a then-new Jesse Helms made his bones, invoking all the usual xenophobic arguments you'd expect. I remember it well, even though I was just in high school in West Virginia, because supporting the treaty was one of Robert Byrd's most courageous moments in his entire career, probably the most courageous; he even agreed to be the 67th vote to be the one to take the heat.

So it's not like this was an easy one. It was really explosive. And yet, Carter, a weakened and already not-very-popular president, got 16 Republican votes.

This is the question those of what Greg Sargent calls the "Green Lantern Theory" of presidential politics--that the president has a magic ring that would bend others to his will if only he wielded it with the proper authority--need to ponder: Did Carter possess powers of persuasion that Obama does not? Of course not. Carter's powers of persuasion were quite limited.

What was different then was not that Carter had a magic ring. It was the nature of the GOP. Imagine Obama presenting a similar treaty to the US Senate today. Are you kidding me?! It wouldn't have a prayer of getting a single Republican vote. This would not be because Obama doesn't scare people or, conversely, because he fails to drink bourbon with McConnell. It would be because the GOP is all those things I said in the first sentence above. This is a unique and bleak historical situation.