In the aftermath of his self-inflicted crisis, there were strong indications that President Jimmy Carter began to lose his grip on the White House last week. At a time when the nation perceived Carter as bumbling and vulnerable, two powerful senators came out in support of Senator Edward Kennedy for president in 1980.
While the handsome and charismatic Kennedy continues to deny that he is running, his disclaimers command less and less credence. Sometimes the little clues lead to the right conclusions. Thus, it might be significant that the Democratic senator from Massachusetts has started to diet and trim down his bulky waistline. “Kennedy’s getting into shape, looking good, preparing for the race,” say the pundits on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, President Carter is looking terrible. The past three traumatic weeks have aged him visibly, the lines and wrinkles on his face have become deeper and greyer. He is flashing his toothy smile a lot less and his mask of confidence keeps slipping to reveal a tired and worried man. Carter’s strategy is simply to hang tough. He believes that he has battled his way back into command of himself and his administration. But even his closest political advisers are admitting privately that the Kennedy card—if it is played—is one that he probably cannot beat. Gravely shaking their heads, they add that if Kennedy does win the Democratic nomination next year it will be because of Jimmy Carter rather than in spite of him.
Last Tuesday, at a specially called press conference, Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson the conservative Democrat from the State of Washington, said that Kennedy “will be the Democratic nominee for president if he runs next year, and he will run.” He went on to praise Kennedy lavishly for not splitting the party by announcing an early candidacy. “The New Hampshire and Massachusetts primaries are going to be critical for Carter,” Jackson said. “If he loses decisively in Massachusetts, that could be the Rubicon.” Kennedy, the senator continued, is “avoiding a course that says he’s clearly running
against the president.” Speculating further, Jackson added that “the only thing that might cause Kennedy to come in ahead of schedule would be a Jerry Brown surge.” Brown, the governor of California, is the one potential Democratic candidate whom Jackson said he could not support.
Just why Jackson chose last week to add to the problems besetting Carter is problematical. It may be that he sees himself as vice-president on a Kennedy ticket, with his conservative background balancing Kennedy’s liberalism.
The Washington furor over Jackson’s statement was still raging when Senator George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate, said in a Library of Congress speech that Kennedy is the “most logical candidate” for the next nomination. Accusing Carter of “moral posturing, public manipulation and political ineptitude,” McGovern said Democrats must find a new standard-bearer in 1980. He added: “I agree with Senator Jackson that our Massachusetts colleague is the most logical candidate for our party. If he decides to run, I believe he can be nominated and elected and would be an inspiring president.”
Kennedy has maintained that he expects Carter to be renominated and reelected next year and after the McGovern speech he said there was “no change” in his position. But he had done nothing to stop a campaign in his home state to make him a “write-in” candidate on the ballot for the Democratic primary. That primary will be held next March and it is widely believed that if Kennedy wins on a “write-in” basis he will consider himself “drafted” and will run for the nomination.
Significant changes in the nominating process (lave weakened the president’s control over the party’s convention so that Carter’s incumbency may not be a great advantage. And if he loses the nomination the president will be only the second to do so after one elected term. Franklin Pierce was the only U.S. leader elected in his own right who failed to regain the nomination. Three others—John Tyler, Chester A. Arthur and Millard Fillmore—took over from presidents who died in office and sought their party’s nomination, but failed.
Apart from the Kennedy affair last week, there was other bad news for the president. The latest government figures, released on Friday, showed that the pace of inflation over the last six months—13.2 per cent—is the largest six-month increase since 1946, when World War II price controls were dismantled and the nation was climbing out of the post-war depression. And while Carter’s chief inflation fighter, Alfred Kahn, blamed the energy crisis and predicted that inflation would slow down in the coming months, the population at large appeared to have saddled the administration’s financial policies with responsibility for price increases.
Not only that, but as Carter began to turn his attention from his cabinet shakeup to energy proposals he found Congress newly skeptical. His energy plans seemed to have considerable backing on the night of July 15 when he presented them in a forceful television address to the country. But they clearly lost momentum during the week of cabinet firings that followed. Although Carter called members of the key finance committee to the White House to plead with them to pass his energy package with great haste and without amendments, he had little impact. It could be months before action is taken and amendments seem certain.
The business community, however, remained unimpressed. In an effort to improve his public support Carter held a nationally televised press conference at midweek to defend the shakeup in his administration and said that it was in the “best interest” of the country and that, despite the threat of recession, he intends to maintain a “steady course” in economic policy, placing the top priority on combating inflation. Lashing out at “the oil lobby,” he predicted that the oil industry will try in the Senate to “rob” $54 billion through amendments to his proposed “windfall profits” tax on their earnings.
Carter scored a plus that same day when he named Paul A. Volcker, a widely respected international monetary expert,to replace G. William Miller as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. The decision to appoint Volcker, now president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, represented an effort to pick someone who would be immediately acceptable to the financial community and who could help stem the decline of the dollar. The void at the fed, caused by Miller’s shift to replace ousted Treasury Secretary W. Michael
Blumenthal, had sent the dollar down. Carter also named Hedley Donovan, retired editor-in-chief of Time, as a new senior adviser on both foreign and domestic policy.
In a survey of 50 top executives from largeand medium-sized businesses The Wall Street Journal found that “only two or three” had favorable feelings about the president’s recent moves—from the energy program and the “crisis-of-confidence” to the cabinet shuffle. Even those who found some good in the cabinet changes generally
deplored the way the changes were handled. “The job could have been done with less pain to everyone concerned and with greater grace,” says Irving S. Shapiro, chairman of DuPont Co. Another executive added: “It looks like the Georgians are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”^
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