Senator Hillary and the Passing of the Old Liberalism

Steven Hayward

March 1, 1999

Amidst the supertanker of ink that has been spilled over the idea that Hillary Rodham Clinton might run for the U.S. Senate from New York, not a single drop has been devoted to a comparison of Hillary with the man she would replace–Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The comparison between them tells volumes about the character of liberalism and the Democratic party today.

Moynihan might well be thought of as the Forrest Gump of modern politics. He has seemingly been in the middle of every major political controversy for 35 years, but like Forrest Gump, many observers have long doubted whether he fully understood what was going on around him. Yet few can claim a more prescient vision. He predicted back in 1965 that the increase of single-mother households and illegitimacy would bring social disaster in our cities. He told Richard Nixon in 1969 that women’s rights would be the emerging issue of the 1970s. He was one of only two people–the other was Ronald Reagan–who predicted in the early 1980s that the Soviet Union was headed the way of the Dodo bird. "The defining event of the decade," he wrote in 1980, "might well be the breakup of the Soviet Union."

A product of New Deal liberalism, Moynihan remains to this day a champion of government activism, which is why conservatives don’t embrace him. Yet his intellectual honesty about liberalism’s failures has also led many liberals–and the Clintons–to keep him at arm’s length as well. Moynihan’s thoughtful reflections about the limitations of politics and social policy are evidence that we can indeed learn from mistakes. "In the early 1960s in Washington," Moynihan has reflected, "we thought we could do anything. … The central psychological proposition of liberalism is that for every problem there is a solution." Early on Moynihan came to understand the "fatal flaw" of liberalism: "Wishing so many things so," he wrote 30 years ago, "we all too readily come to think them not only possible, which they very likely are, but also near at hand, which is seldom the case."

Why "seldom the case"? Because human nature and human society are more complicated and less susceptible to easy government remedies than our optimistic liberalism had led us to believe. But when the news started coming in during the mid-1960s that our problems were not going to be easily solved with another billion dollar program, many liberals reacted badly, often lashing out at the messenger. "Liberalism faltered when it turned out it could not cope with truth," Moynihan observed.

At the same time liberalism began to experience its harsh limits in the 1960s, the rising generational revolt spawned a new political culture, apocalyptic in tone, "that rewarded the articulation of moral purpose more than the achievement of practical good." To the morally pure mind of the protest left in the 1960s, if you expressed any doubt about immediately ending poverty, racism, and war, then you were a Bad Person. This was when the "politics of personal destruction" began. Liberalism came to have "the ability to immediately dissolve every statement of fact into a question of motive." Moynihan himself was one of the first victims of this new political culture, even though he has never stopped trying to refine social policy to serve liberal ends.

In practical everyday terms this not only means that you will demonize your opponents in the most personal way ("Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"), but it also rules out compromise with the opposition. The Clintons brought this attitude with them to Washington. Clinton could have had comprehensive health care reform in 1994 if he had been willing to compromise with Republicans in Congress. But Clinton wouldn’t even compromise with Moynihan, who was then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. In Clinton’s very first week in office, a senior White House aide was quoted in Time magazine about Moynihan: "He’s not one of us … we’ll roll right over him if we have to."

He’s not one of us. Moynihan had lunch with Hillary recently and, being a loyal Democrat, said he would support her if she runs. But she represents the kind of post-sixties liberalism that Moynihan has been battling for 30 years. Recall Hillary’s memorable speech about "the politics of meaning," in which she casually spoke of how we can "redefine who we are as human beings," which will require "remaking the American way of politics, government, and indeed life." Just like that. In a time when we can’t even get the public schools to work, Hillary thinks we can change human nature itself if we simply will it to be changed. And if you cast a jaundiced eye toward Hillary’s exalted moral purpose, get ready to be demonized as "not one of us." Old New Deal liberals in New York will surely shed a tear at Moynihan’s retirement, for it marks the final passing of a once-great creed.

P>Steven Hayward is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute .