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Remembering Moynihan in the Age of Trump

If the late senator-scholar were alive, he would see his most acute societal warnings confirmed.

The great 20th-century American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald often evoked the fleeting passage of time. He described the final weeks of summer in This Side of Paradise as that “sad season of life without growth.” On a particularly warm summer afternoon, The Great Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan lamented her boredom. “‘What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon,’ cried Daisy, ‘and the day after that, and the next thirty years?’” Her friend Jordan Baker dismissed Daisy’s morbidity, reminding her that, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

The mood in Washington easily corresponds with Fitzgerald’s melancholic theme. Congress returns to Capitol Hill this autumn hardly rejuvenated. President Donald Trump, in survival mode without a substantive legislative accomplishment, will market tax reform. Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, estranged allies of the White House, will pursue their own tax reform plan while also addressing the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey. Healthcare legislation appears terminal and unforeseen developments in foreign affairs could disrupt everything. And so Trump, along with a Congress controlled by his own party, begins the season without a clear legislative agenda or ideological path.

With Congress back in session, Union Station’s concourse will swell with commuters, congested restaurants will turn diners away, and the Trump International Hotel will maintain its distinction as this administration’s crossroads for lobbyists, policy makers, tourists, and loyal officials.

The Trump Hotel operates in the Old Post Office building, a stunning Romanesque Revival structure completed during the gilded 1890s. Its granite façade, crowned with a domineering clock tower, occupies a full city block on Pennsylvania Avenue. In the 1970s, the building faced an uncertain future on a deteriorating stretch of the street that also included the White House. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan—esteemed policy wonk, indefatigable egghead, and later U.S. senator from New York—who crusaded to save the avenue he deemed the “main street for both the city and the nation.” Moynihan’s lobbying endeavors resulted in Congress’ creation of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, which renewed the thoroughfare and saved the Old Post Office from the wrecking ball.

As meetings and dinners commence beneath the hotel’s chandeliers, perhaps Trump’s acolytes should revisit the man credited with saving their place of congregation. After all, it was Moynihan who gave Hillary Clinton his blessing to run for his Senate seat in 2000—a decision that indirectly led to this presidency. But the senator and his wife Liz were known for their reservations about the Clintons. In 2008, just a few years after Senator Moynihan’s death, Liz endorsed Barack Obama over Clinton, arguing that Moynihan would have approved the candidate’s work to “rekindle hope in our young as he encourages them to participate in the political process.” Liz, who served as her husband’s campaign manager, was also dismayed by Clinton’s hostility toward Obama’s candidacy.

 We know the outcome of Clinton’s story, and the former candidate will exhaustively remind us of that story as she launches her autopsy tour in the coming weeks. But could the Trump administration, members of Congress, and pundits learn from her predecessor’s legacy? As we navigate the uncertain contours of this political era, could Moynihan’s voluminous writings, contradictory policy positions, legislative tactics, and astute synopsis of socio-economic problems offer a mild prescription for our present paralysis?

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Daniel Patrick Moynihan was born an outsider. The son of a journalist and homemaker, Moynihan’s dysfunctional Irish Catholic family was affected by the working-class issues that fuel populism. When Moynihan’s alcoholic father abandoned the family, his childhood featured the unhappy experiences of shining shoes, hopping from apartment to apartment, and witnessing mass poverty in pre-war New York. Moynihan’s sociological diagnoses stemmed from this youth.

“From the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century Eastern seaboard to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles,” wrote Moynihan, “there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future—that community asks for and gets chaos.”

When Moynihan issued this controversial warning, he could demonstrate that he succeeded in spite of exposure to this ecosystem. Moynihan graduated valedictorian of his high school class, worked on the piers of the Hudson River, earned his college degree from Tufts University on the G.I. Bill, became a Fulbright fellow, and completed his doctorate. He served as an advisor to both Democrats and Republicans—including the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations—but he never wavered in his allegiance to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition. Moynihan believed that a person’s political affiliation was determined by the year he was born, and as a product of 1927, he considered himself in alignment with FDR’s Democratic Party.

But it remains difficult to decipher Moynihan’s ideological fidelity. He espoused liberalism, yet neoconservatives, neoliberals, and traditional conservatives considered him a member of their respective tribes. We are left with his innumerable writings, and they show a scholar whose views easily melded with those shared by Nathan Glazer, James Q. Wilson, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and William F. Buckley. Moynihan was a creature of civility, and he shared this perspective during a period when conservatism ascended and liberalism retreated. Nearly 15 years after Moynihan’s passing, we find ourselves in a political epoch where both ends of the ideological spectrum appear in flux. During these years, blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan—accompanied by economic collapse, technological upheaval, rapid demographic change, and unrepentant globalization—have engendered disillusionment, socio-economic instability, and ultimately populist backlash.   

Although Moynihan sometimes seemed contrarian for the sake of it, his work remains a brilliant exercise in prescience, providing borderline biblical wisdom for our present challenges in domestic and foreign affairs. If Moynihan were alive for the present upheaval, he would see his most acute societal warnings confirmed. He would understand why Trump is president, for he criticized both parties’ political failures for decades.

The Trump administration and Congress should take note of Moynihan’s prophecy. In 1992, he wrote that U.S. healthcare suffered from “Baumol’s disease,” commenting that the system was “plagued by cumulative and persistent rises in costs at a rate which normally exceeded to a significant degree the corresponding rate of increase for commodities generally.” Moynihan’s invocation of this economic phenomenon is hardly dated, and if Congress revisits healthcare reform, rising costs remain a fundamental problem. Yet as the Senate Finance Committee chair during Bill Clinton’s health care pitch in 1994-1995, Moynihan curiously declared that there was no crisis, playing an important role in derailing the universal health-care endeavor led by Hillary and senior advisor Ira Magaziner. But at the time, Moynihan questioned Clinton’s “intentionally obscure” proposal and shared the belief that the overall plan was too coercive.

On Obamacare, the perpetually skeptical statesman would have supported some type of reform. Moynihan would also champion welfare reform, rejecting the idea of permanent governmental dependence. The New Deal always guided Moynihan, and he was a beneficiary of that period, yet he was hostile toward the excesses of welfare that sprouted from Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. Regardless, Moynihan still expressed concern for how reform could affect the poor and elderly. He once told his aide, Lawrence O’Donnell, that he could easily reform health care by deleting “65 and older” from the legislation limiting the Medicare plan to seniors.

Moynihan also presented a case for tax reform. In a 1981 newsletter, he wrote about the “‘bracket creep’ that has increased the real rate of taxes for people who have had no real increase in income.” Nearly four decades and six administrations later, the statement remains timeless. “A tax system must not only be fair, it must be seen to be fair,” he declared. “It is useful to keep in mind that our country was founded in a revolution that started over unfair taxation.”

Moynihan’s commentary rarely seems dated. His positions would reassure or dishearten both sides on today’s most pressing debates. The senator opposed NAFTA in 1994, complaining that “the United States government still doesn’t seem prepared to address the needs of those workers who will lose their jobs as a result of this agreement.” But at the same time, he supported lax immigration laws, arguing that enforcement would not discourage immigrants from coming to the U.S. “So, take down the walls and you make sure this migration will continue,” he said. 

Moynihan also understood the perils of drugs and their corrosive impact. His observation in 1998 still rings true for the countless communities grappling with a heroin crisis: “Since the desire of man to alter his state of consciousness is as old as human history, and technology continues to provide a breathtaking array of drugs capable of producing everything from oblivious to nirvana, I think it safe to assume that we may never win a ‘war’ against drugs.”

Perhaps the closest modern-day comparison to Moynihan is former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, whose moderate to conservative viewpoints didn’t quite fit in either political party. Webb himself confirmed Moynihan’s influence in a 2008 interview with the New Yorker. “My prototype really is Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was able to combine an academic, intellectual career and a government career, really put new ideas out there, and think,” Webb said. 

In 1993, Moynihan wrote an American Scholar essay, “Defining Deviancy Down,” in which he argued that American society was increasingly lowering its standards for tolerating bad behavior. He lamented eroding families, rising crime, and a general permissiveness toward traditionally unacceptable behavior. Nearly a quarter-century later, it seems quite clear that what was once abnormal is now normalized. This is most evident in the post-industrial communities ravaged by socio-economic maladies. Moynihan understood these problems and offered a substantive intellectual take on the issues that resonate in these cities and towns.

In what often seems like a dark age, it is worth revisiting Moynihan’s work. An ideal start is Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of An American Visionary, a hefty volume of the senator’s political writing, memorandums, and letters. Few lawmakers could compete with Moynihan’s wide-ranging intellectual interests, but perhaps they will find solace, or even inspiration, as they navigate our ambivalent future. But for now, Congress returns to Trump’s Washington as boats against the current, rowing toward an irresolvable future.

Charles F. McElwee III works in the economic development sector in northeastern Pennsylvania.



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