The vote in the House of Representatives and the upcoming one in the Senate over President Trump’s emergency declaration so he can reallocate money from authorized defense department spending to congressionally unauthorized spending on a border wall has made me think of a book I read a while back, 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 and resonate in our present political climate

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 authorized the United States 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, which under our Constitution must approve treaties by a two-thirds majority.  According to Clymer, this battle 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 to 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 ensure the canal’s neutrality 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 threat of guerrilla attacks, which were almost impossible to defend against.

The treaties were backed by prominent conservatives, including Henry Kissinger and William Buckley, but the treaties were also attacked by other conservatives in near-hysterical terms.  This, they argued, 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 subsequent harm to the US would be incalcuable.

What is surprising and heartening to a surveyor of the contemporary political scene is that some Senators supported the treaty simply because they thought it was right even though they knew that their ratification vote might harm them politically.   The single-issue PACs targeted pro-treaty Republican Senators and, through direct-mail marketing, inflamed a cadre of voters. Some moderate Republicans who supported the treaties were defeated when they stood for reelection or had their political influence dissipated. Robert G. Kaiser, the Washington Post’s Senate correspondent during this period, in his book Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t, expresses admiration for Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, who was a Republican leader in the Senate. Kaiser writes, “Baker had presidential ambitions for 1980 and new conservatives viewed him warily, but nevertheless decided to support the treaties, provided they were modified slightly. This, Baker told me privately, was the right thing to do, though he knew it could cost him dearly in the political arena. In fact it probably ended his career.” Sixty-eight Senators, one more than needed, voted for the treaties.

This issue 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 fear that if they don’t toe some single-issue lines, a portion of conservatives will target them and defeat them in the primaries or otherwise destroy their careers.  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 essential.  All government spending, except on defense, is bad.

Back in 1978, however, 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. The takeaway message was don’t to try to figure out what is best for the country; take the action that avoid personal political harm.

This history is also striking because the treaty 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 gross error. They continued in office, and one notable politician benefited handsomely from his opposition. Ronald Reagan opposed the Treaty, and some, including Bill Buckley, maintained that the treaty controversy helped make Reagan president.

Pay a price for being right. Gain from being wrong. Ah, America.

And most of us have forgotten the debate. But it will affect the vote on Trump’s “national emergency.”

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