Awhile back I read Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch: The Panama Canal Treaties and the Rise of the Right by Adam Clymer. The book did not get much play as far as I know, but it had some important themes that have stuck with me.

Clymer maintained that the fight over the Panama Canal Treaties helped fuel the rise of the modern Right.  The two treaties were signed in 1977.  One treaty gave the United States the right to use force to assure that the canal would remain open to ships of all nations.  The second treaty gave Panama, starting in 2000, control over the canal.

The treaties, of course, had to be ratified, and after Panama did so in a plebiscite, a political battle ensued in the United States Senate over their ratifications.  According to Clymer, this led to the emergence of Richard Viguerie, a founder of modern conservatism, the use of direct-mail marketing, and the rise of single-issue PACs to raise money and defeat moderate Republicans.

Although it was President Jimmy Carter who signed the treaties, the negotiations had started under President Nixon.  The treaties were thought desirable because they gave America the right to make sure that the canal remained neutral and they removed a flashpoint for much of Latin America, and Panama in particular,  by giving Panama control over the canal.  Those supporting the treaties maintained that the treaties would increase the security of the canal by helping to remove the threats of guerrilla attacks, which were almost impossible to defend against.

The treaties were backed by some prominent conservatives, including Henry Kissinger and William Buckley, but the treaties were also attacked by other conservatives in near-hysterical terms.  This was a surrender of American sovereignty, and furthermore, the military leader of Panama was pro-Communist.  Communists would control the canal and Panama, and the harm to the US as a result would be tremendous.

What is surprising to a modern surveyor of the political scene is that a number of Senators supported the treaty simply because they thought it was right even though they knew that their ratification votes would harm them politically.   The single-issue PACs targeted some of these Senators and through direct-mail marketing, inflamed a cadre of voters. A number of the moderate Republicans who supported the treaties were defeated when they stood for reelection.  Ronald Reagan opposed the Treaty, and some, including Bill Buckley, maintained that the treaty controversy helped make Reagan president.

This was an issue that is now largely forgotten even though its aftermath still affects the United States. A lesson from the controversy has been absorbed, even if that lesson’s source is not remembered.  Republican politicians are in fear that if they don’t toe some single-issue lines, a portion of conservatives will target them and defeat them in the primaries.  The result is that the politicians cannot develop nuanced positions; compromises are verboten.  There must be complete acceptance of the NRA’s positions.  Abortions are absolute evil.  Tax cuts are always absolutely essential.  All government spending, except on defense, is bad.  Back in 1978, some Senators studied a complex situation and decided that a ratification vote was in the best interests of the country even though their decision would harm them politically.  What is remembered is not that their position was right, but that they were harmed politically. What was learned is not try to figure out what is best for the country, but only to take actions that will not produce personal political harm.

This history is also striking because the opponents have been proven wrong. The Canal functions just fine. Panama is not a hotbed of anti-American Communism. Those who were wrong, however, did not pay a price for their belief. They continued in office. And most of us have forgotten the debate.

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