TCS Daily

Amazing Grace

By Megan McArdle - March 28, 2003 12:00 AM

The first time I met Senator Moynihan, I'm afraid I mauled him.

I was taking a tour of New York's water tunnels with my father, who worked for the New York Department of Environmental Protection. I was eight. My father introduced me to a very tall, droop-eyed man who radiated amiability, and the man solemnly offered me his hand, just like a real grown up. Intoxicated by the attention, I enthusiastically pumped his arm. Endlessly. He bore it with an air that indicated that he'd like nothing better than to spend the rest of his life right there, in the dank tunnel, shaking that childish hand. Eventually, I'm told, I had to be physically pulled away, wreaking some unspecified injury on the poor Senator's arm.

I couldn't help it. You just liked the guy.

Moynihan was one of those rare souls that everyone is happy to claim as their own. The Democrats rejoice that he is theirs, while Republicans point to his brilliant attacks on the welfare state as proof that, at heart, he was their ideological brother. New York City and the Upstate region both consider him a New York boy, which is no mean feat in a state where the residents of the main city generally refer to everyone outside the metro area as "those people", and "those people" refer to everything south of Albany as "down below", with a hellish connotation that is not entirely accidental. But even genteel upstate old ladies like my grandmother, who has cast every vote in her life for the straight Republican ticket, were happy to regard Moynihan as belonging to the tribe.

At bottom the Democrats, the city people, seem to have the better case. He was a party man, as his Senate voting scorecards revealed, sticking by and large to the straight party line. But there is nothing dishonorable about that. My father comes from a long line of such men, and there is nothing incompatible in seeking the best interests of your party and your country when you are bound to both by your ideals. Unlike the party hacks who stand only for re-election, Moynihan didn't lose sight of the reasons that he was a Democrat and a Senator.

Because Moynihan seemed genuinely motivated by pursuit of those ideals, I've often disagreed with his policy ideas, but I have never doubted if one mustered the right arguments, he could be convinced. The terms of debate were not what fit an ideological framework unchanged since his 21st birthday, nor what could be sold in a five-second blurb on the evening news, but what would best achieve the goals he fervently believed in: eliminating suffering and ensuring both dignity and liberty for the American people. Who could doubt it, after the courage he displayed in taking on his peers in both academia and his party over the major political issues of the day?

From the publication of 'The Negro Family: The Case for National Action', the report on the breakdown of inner city families that drew an enraged response from the Left for suggesting that the crisis in Black American might have other causes than a simple lack of wealth, he has been a rare party voice speaking out against the "Money is the Root of All Evil" school of Democratic politics. Yet he was not afraid to speak out against the 1996 Welfare Reform bill, which had been made possible by his influence on the debate, but which he thought too drastic to avoid hurting children. Some conservatives were incensed, but there is nothing hypocritical about pointing out that welfare has deleterious sociological effects, yet still believing that cold turkey is not the way to quit. Moynihan was concerned with results, not ideology. He was wrong, like most of the rest of us trying to predict the future, but at least his prediction was honest.

He was an outspoken critic of the Clinton health care plan, cutting through the rhetoric of crisis to point out that 5 out of 6 Americans were insured, that the poor were covered by Medicaid, and the elderly by Medicare. His stand hurt the already vulnerable Clinton administration, contributing to a legislative fiasco from which it barely recovered - but it helped keep Hilary Clinton's disastrous proposal from ripping up the American health care system.

He had the courage to touch the third rail of American politics, first by speaking out against the accounting fiction of the Social Security "trust fund", and then by advocating partial privatization of the system, even as his party was trying to use seniors frightened by entitlement reform as a club to beat back the Republicans. When his party was wrong, he was capable of using his influence to advance policy debates at the expense of electoral strategy - and equally capable of choosing such battles judiciously.

He was not a great legislator. As Irving Kristol has pointed out, there is no "Moynihan Bill" by which we'll remember him, and few would claim that he was the kind of sharp wheeler-dealer who keeps the wheels of the Senate turning. He was something much more important than that: the intellectual conscience of his party. He used the influence of his position in the Senate to shape the debate on critical domestic policy issues, keeping it focused on results rather than rhetoric. Throughout his life he was a crucial advocate for the use of social science in policy. Not the ivory tower theoretical science that many of his academic peers in the 1950's and 60's had hoped would turn them into the technocratic lever-pullers of the Great Society, but the empirical, pragmatic social science that measured the results of programs against the goals they were supposed to achieve. And he reminded all of us that while loyalty is important, there are things more important than winning.

Perhaps that is why, when the time came, he was able to retire gracefully rather than clinging to power until he had to be wheeled off the Senate floor. His retirement never got the attention it deserved. The announcement was pushed out of the spotlight by Newt Gingrich's decision to retire, and the event itself was eclipsed by the 2000 electoral circus. So we did not give him his due. Now he's once again slipped out the back while we were distracted by a crisis elsewhere, and prevented us from saying all the things we would have liked to.

Senator Moynihan, we'll miss you. And I'm really sorry I hurt your arm.

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