Moynihan's Squandered Political Career
Jude Wanniski
September 18, 2000


To: Alan Wolfe, The New York Times “Arts & Ideas”
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: 24 Years in the U.S. Senate

Congratulations on your very interesting report in the Saturday Times of September 9, on the career of Senator Moynihan, with arguments from various social scientists on the contribution he made in his four terms in the Senate. My own assessment is that he succeeded as a social scientist and failed as a Senator, the U.S. Senate being no place for a social scientist. The headline on your piece did justice to it: “Not the Ordinary Kind, In Politics or at Harvard,” with the sub-headline: “A Flawed Social Scientist With a Political Agenda? Or a Politician Whose Insights Inform His Studies.”

I first met Daniel Patrick Moynihan when he was working for President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s and I don’t remember what we discussed, but I do remember being awed by his intellect. I was a reporter/columnist for the now defunct Dow Jones National Observer, and still a registered Democrat who felt attracted to Nixon’s views on foreign policy, particularly on China. I’d already grown disenchanted with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty, having spent a week examining the records of welfare cases in Atlanta for an Observer report -- and seen how young black families were being destroyed by the perverse incentives of the welfare rules. Because of that experience I began to see that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and could appreciate Moynihan’s arguments along the same line, as he encouraged Nixon to be the compassionate conservative who would embrace his “Family Assistance Plan.” Harvard’s academic liberals who were furious at him for going into the Nixon administration are the same folks who now deride him, as you report, for being a shoddy social scientist, when they really want to deride him for seeing way back then that their socialist ideas were poisonous and destructive.

My profound disappointment with Moynihan is that he parked his sociology at the cloak room of the U.S. Senate, and spent 24 years voting for the welfare state he knew, as a social scientist, would smash the underclass. Mutual friends told me he had little choice if he wanted to remain a U.S. Senator. He had to take his voting instructions from the NYTimes editorial page if he wanted to remain a Senator. And that he did. If I think back on his 24 years in the greatest deliberative body in the world, I cannot think of a single vote that surprised me, or surprised the editors of the NYT. The biggest thing he got into which will remain a footnote in history was his collaboration with Alan Greenspan in “fixing” Social Security, by increasing payroll taxes. If Moynihan had even lifted a finger to help supply-siders and Ronald Reagan cut tax rates on the way to restoring a living wage to the bread-winner, I could be generous to Pat. Alas, he failed every step of the way, in order to keep the support of the do-gooders at the NYTimes.

In Sunday’s NYPost, I see George Will gushing praise for “Moynihan: We’ll Never See His Like Again.” I hope not, although Will, who is as cynical a conservative as Moynihan is a liberal, truly admires his fellow establishmentarian. What can you make of this from George?:

Moynihan has written much while occupying the dark and bloody ground where social science and policymaking intersect. Knowing that the two institutions that most shape individuals are the family and the state, he knows that when the former weakens, the latter strengthens. And family structure is “the principle conduit of class structure.” Hence Moynihan’s interest in government measures to strengthen families. Moynihan understands that incantations praising minimalist government are America’s “civic religion, avowed but not constraining.” Government grows because knowledge does, and knowledge often grows because of government.

I’m afraid Pat was neither fish nor fowl. Had he remained in the social sciences and spoken his mind, he might have had a greater impact on the course of history -- and there would not now be two million black men stewing in prison and an equal number of never-wed single moms with kids they can barely parent. Moynihan essentially predicted this would happen, but he did nothing in his political career to slow it down. If he had supported the economic growth policies of Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, which were, like John F. Kennedy’s, aimed at lifting all boats, I might give him a passing grade as Senator, but the Times did not like GOP tax cuts so neither did he. Now that he will go into retirement from politics, I actually look forward to the clear, clean, honest contributions he will be able to make, if he can make that adjustment.