Eugene McCarthy and William Proxmire are dead. So, it seems, is the kind of maverick politics the two Democratic former senators represented. The process that allowed such men to hold public office in the first place isn’t looking very healthy either.
With few exceptions, the men and women who hold public office are made from just three templates - red-team players, blue-team players and risk-averse moderates who confuse pragmatism with high principle lurking somewhere in between. What to make of a liberal icon who endorsed Ronald Reagan or a progressive Wisconsin Democrat who crusaded tirelessly against wasteful government spending?
Today, such an odd mix of views is more likely encountered in Internet chat rooms than the halls of the U.S. Senate. Yet neither McCarthy nor Proxmire were, at their peak, marginal figures.
Gene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign catalyzed the political involvement of a dedicated cadre of serious activists, like few other Oval Office aspirants - Barry Goldwater, George McGovern and perhaps Reagan come to mind - ever did. His surprisingly strong performance in the New Hampshire drove Lyndon Johnson from the race and marked a turning point in the debate over the Vietnam War.
In 1958, William Proxmire was elected to succeed Joseph McCarthy. Early on, he bucked the party leadership and displayed a discomfiting - at least to Majority Leader LBJ - independent streak in his legislative prerogatives. But Proxmire rose to spend six years as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and secured the U.S. ratification of a major international accord on genocide. In 1982, he won 64 percent of the vote with a final campaign that officially spent only $145.10.
But it’s hard to imagine either McCarthy or Proxmire prospering in American politics in 2005. For one thing, despite the enactment of campaign-finance laws ostensibly aimed at expanding participation and reducing the influence of money, they probably couldn’t have raised the funds.
In McCarthy’s case, the law itself would have complicated his prospects. His 1968 campaign, whose volunteers included hippies who shed their beards and shoulder-length hair to “get clean for Gene,” was actually bankrolled by a handful of wealthy liberal donors making contributions of a size that would now be illegal. The Minnesotan opposed the Watergate-era campaign finance reforms at the time of their enactment, fought them in as a plaintiff in the 1976 Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo and won plaudits even from conservatives when he continued to resist future variations like McCain-Feingold. “In the American Revolution,” McCarthy said after winning an award from the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2000, “they didn’t get matching funds from George III.”
As for Proxmire, it is difficult to see how his low-budget campaigns would have withstood the onslaught of massive pre-election spending. Just in November’s New Jersey gubernatorial campaign, Democrat Jon Corzine and Republican Doug Forrester spent a combined $75 million - in a race that, while far from a Democratic blowout, was never truly competitive.
Neither Proxmire nor McCarthy mastered the art of lock-step partisanship. Proxmire opposed abortion and forced busing (according to Progressive Review editor Sam Smith, McCarthy “favored prayer in school, but only on court-ordered buses”). McCarthy ran semi-serious independent presidential campaigns in 1976, when the nearly 750,000 votes he received made things difficult for Jimmy Carter in a few close states, and 1988, when he advocated trade protectionism, Reagan’s Star Wars program and the abolishment of the two-party system. He entertained second thoughts about the Great Society, which he said “became affirmative action and more welfare… an admission the New Deal had failed or fallen,” and reversed his support of the 1965 Immigration Act, supporting organizations like the Federation for American Immigration Reform that sought to change it.
Nor did the late senators busy themselves with subsidizing their constituents at the expense of their opponents, Proxmire’s support for milk price supports notwithstanding. Starting in 1975, before Citizens Against Government Waste existed, Proxmire’s monthly “Golden Fleece” awards called attention to Washington’s appetite for pork. He opposed excessive spending by the Pentagon, congressional pay raises and many of the perks his Senate colleagues bestowed upon themselves. Proxmire avoided junkets and refunded more than $900,000 from his office allowances to the federal Treasury.
How many William Proxmires and Eugene McCarthys currently reside in the U.S. Senate? They may not have always been right - quite the contrary - but they weren’t boring, and certainly didn’t give the impression of being bought and paid for.
There are still men and women of principle in Washington, in both parties, but few if any such loveable rogues. Their replacement by conformist pols who might as well be talking-point recitation machines has impoverished American politics.