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The MX Missile Fallout

Many moderate Democrats have started to abandon Reagan’s weapons plan. Once again, the public is leading the politicians

Minuteman ill Silo, Albin, Peace keeper, MX missile

This Minuteman ill Silo, about a mile northeast of Albin, and others like it will probably be home to the Peace keeper, also called the MX missile on July 7th, 1983.

Dave Buresh/The Denver Post via Getty

Four months ago, when President Reagan announced his grand compromise on nuclear arms, it was swiftly proclaimed a political masterstroke – a giant fig leaf behind which all sides could hide.

The compromise, engineered by a White House-appointed commission headed by one-time Kissinger aide Brent Scowcroft, was a classic of its kind; it was the sort of made-in-Washington consensus that satisfies selected insiders and ignores everyone else. This plan brushed aside all the popular discontent about Reagan’s arms escalation, and it papered over the profound contradictions that mark U.S. nuclear strategy. “Never mind all that,” the insiders said. “We’ve got a deal – let’s vote.”

In late May, the deal went down. The House of Representatives, which two weeks earlier had piously endorsed the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Resolution by a two-to-one margin, abruptly reversed field and approved the Gipper’s favorite weapon – the 96-ton MX missile, armed with 10 warheads. Thanks mainly to middle-of-the-road Democrats, the MX vote wasn’t even close – it won by 53 votes. A total of 97 House members who voted for the freeze also voted for the MX. These freeze phonies, as they became known, included most of the Democratic leaders.

What they gave the president was quite tangible: the promise not to block deployment of 100 MX missiles. What he gave in return was quite vague: a promise to be sincere in pursuing an arms-control agreement with the Russians and a fuzzy commitment to study a less menacing alternative to the multi-warhead missiles for land and for submarines that are the core of his new arms buildup. Someday, Reagan avowed, after thousands of new nukes have been deployed, the United States can turn to a less threatening approach – a small, mobile, single-warhead missile known as the Midgetman. Then, perhaps even in our lifetime, we can begin to dismantle all the multi-warhead missiles. But before we can take them apart, we have to build them.

The trade-off left most freeze proponents incredulous. Even as an intellectual proposition, the Scowcroft report’s compromise was scandalously at odds with its own findings. The assembled hawks who produced the report conceded, for instance, that the central argument they had used for years to promote the MX – the so-called window of vulnerability that Reagan campaigned on in 1980 – was fallacious. It doesn’t exist. The report also conceded that the new monster missile would have negligible military purposes. Yet the commission concluded: let’s build 100 of them (1,000 new nukes at 10 warheads per missile) and see if it softens up the Russians.

Fortunately, all this unseemly wheeling and dealing created an unanticipated reaction. Betrayal breeds anger, and once again the Washington insiders underestimated the depth of public resistance to another generation of the nuclear-arms race. From across the country, cards, letters, phone calls, radio spots and newspaper ads began to pummel those middle-minded Democrats who thought they had made a safe deal. Many congressional politicians, in truth, have always dismissed the freeze movement as mom-and-apple-pie sentimentality, lacking the political bite to do them harm. This summer, they began to feel the bite.

For six weeks, intense lobbying and agitation in their hometown papers focused on the freeze phonies. In the House corridors and the Democratic caucus, they were denounced for “selling out arms control” and their own party’s claim to the peace issue in 1984. The party grapevine said any Democrat who aspires to a leadership post had better join his troops on this issue.

By late July, when the MX again came up for a vote in the House (for authority to open the production line), the anti-nuke opponents needed to convert 27 members to prevail. They fell just short of victory by switching 20. Largely because of the orchestrated pressure, the MX margin shrank from 53 votes to 13 votes – an unstable majority that soon will be challenged again and again.

The names of those who abandoned the administration are significant. Majority leader Jim Wright of Texas, who would like to be Speaker of the House someday, had an epiphany in which he discovered deep philosophical reasons for voting against the weapon he had embraced two months before. So did Representative Gillis Long of Louisiana, the party caucus chairman, as well as Representatives Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Dan Glickman of Kansas and a bunch of other earnest moderates who had originally bought into the president’s deal. No one, of course, ever gets up on the House floor and announces he is changing his vote because he felt the heat: There’s no need to. Everyone understands what’s happened.

This fall, the House must vote on appropriating the actual money – $2.5 billion – to start the MX production. Now the opposition can focus its pressure on the seven swing votes needed to stop the MX; already, two congressmen who voted for the MX authorization in July have promised privately that they will vote against the MX money on the next roll call.

Representative Tom Downey of New York, a central player in organizing the pro-freeze counter-offensive, assumes that getting the final few switches will be tougher than the first 20, but he is counting on Ronald Reagan to help. “The Reagan administration went crazy on this vote for the last week,” Downey said after the House vote. “If this is the effort they had to expend for a 13-vote margin, I can’t imagine that they can get it up again and again. They’re running out of bargaining points.”

The one thing Reagan can do to hold his fragile majority is to demonstrate real, believable progress in negotiating arms control. This seems most unlikely, given the continuing influence of hawkish advisers who are fundamentally hostile to any arms control that does not produce abject surrender by the Soviet Union. And if Reagan fails to follow through on his promises, his package program will continue to lose votes, and sooner or later the fig leaf will fall.

When Democrats have serious family fights, they begin by arguing over principles. Pretty soon, though, they are throwing raw crud at one another. Right now, the nastiest bad-mouthing is aimed at two of the party’s brightest young congressmen, Representatives Les Aspin of Wisconsin and Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee. They helped engineer the original Scowcroft compromise, and now they must vouch for the president’s sincerity.

Albert Gore, Harvard educated, Hollywood handsome and only 35 years old, is the kind of promising young politician who can look in the mirror every morning and plausibly tell himself that someday he will be running for president. Friends say that’s exactly what Gore does.

Next year, the young congressman has an excellent shot at becoming a senator by filling the seat that will be vacated when Howard Baker retires. The liberal peace groups that expected to hustle thousands of dollars for Gore’s campaign have told him bluntly they won’t help bankroll an apostate. Still, they hope for his conversion. Gore is so intelligent, serious and palpably sincere on arms control, they can’t believe he will keep fronting for the Reagan program.

Some of Gore’s House colleagues are more cynical. “Albert is one of those who began thinking about being president with the first breath of life,” one of them said. “On every issue, he’s trying to figure whether it will help with delegates from Oklahoma.”

A bit wearily, the young congressman tries to respond without sliding into malice. “It’s a chancy proposal, no question about it,” Gore conceded. “I do not blame them in the least for being cynical about the personalities in this administration. I don’t fault my colleagues for criticism at all. I understand it completely and understand that I’m taking a gigantic risk in this operation. I think it’s worth it.”

Why is he so sure that the Reagan administration has changed its fundamental convictions about arms control? “I’ve looked at the cable traffic, and I’ve seen the negotiating instructions, and there has been significant change,” Gore attested.

It is, of course, heady business for a young congressman to play power broker with the White House. You are shown the cables; the president promptly returns your inquiries. It’s like sitting at the grown-ups’ table, and friends think Gore likes that best of all. They also think he’ll get over it and eventually vote with them against the MX.

The other power broker, Les Aspin, is a bit testy toward his critics. Aspin shrugs off the hometown pressure, such as the newspaper ad signed by dozens of peace-group leaders in his southern Wisconsin district. “Those ads created an MX constituency in my district,” Aspin claimed. “Until their ads ran, I couldn’t find anyone who was for the MX. Now I’m getting phone calls of support.”

At 45, Aspin is an ex-whiz kid from the Robert McNamara era at the Pentagon. When he came to Congress in 1971, Aspin quickly established a reputation as a maverick critic of the Pentagon, but now his colleagues think he is anxious to become an establishment player, to be regarded as “responsible” by the military and industrial powers that count. “Les is running for secretary of defense in the next Democratic administration,” another House member said. “He knows he can’t get there if he goes against the MX.”

Aspin has heard that line, and it makes him furious. “If I wanted to be secretary of defense, would it really be in my interest to tick off the Democratic presidential candidates who are all against the MX?” Then Aspin takes a shot back at those colleagues who switched their votes and abandoned the Scowcroft compromise: “The problem is, you’ve got a number of guys who want leadership posts, and they can’t afford to go against the liberals.”

Still, neither Aspin nor Gore is overly confident that the package, as they call it, will survive the autumn. “My position has been very consistent,” Aspin said. “Every time we have a vote, I ask myself: ‘Is this package holding together?’ This time my judgment was: ‘So far, so good. They’ve done what they said they would do at the White House.’ By October, when we vote again, maybe things will come to the point where I think it’s no longer in my interest to go along with it.”

Of course, if either Gore or Aspin were to give up on the Gipper, the fig leaf would disappear. That would put both of them in a strong bargaining position with the White House. In fairness, that is exactly where they said they wanted to be – using the compromise to keep the heat on Reagan’s arms-control efforts. Despite the unflattering things that their Democratic colleagues have been saying about them, Aspin and Gore and the handful of other moderates who are still with them actually have stronger leverage now, thanks to that close House vote in July.

In the next six weeks, we will find out what that leverage can produce.

Beyond the dynamics of arms control, the MX stalemate will be one of the acid tests of the 1984 elections, the issue that divides the two parties and sums up all the other complexities that make up the national debate on nuclear arms. If Democrats defeat the missile in the House, Republicans will resurrect it in the Senate. The roll calls will probably go back and forth like a ping-pong match.

A lot of sober Democrats earnestly hope that this won’t happen. They are deeply, perhaps permanently, fearful of the political skills of the president; they do not want to get in a cross-fire with him on such a gut issue. The political argument that Aspin has used on his colleagues goes like this: If Democrats are responsible for killing the MX, Reagan will hang it around their necks, blaming Democrats both for being soft on defense and for denying him bargaining chips with the Russians. Many older Democrats, reared in an era when Congress let presidents have their way on foreign affairs, agreed.

But the dynamics of the last three months produced a different consensus among most liberal and moderate Democrats: The peace issue can be a winner for them. That’s another reflection of the strength of the grass-roots agitation. “Let him come right at us on this,” said Representative Downey. “I want the Gipper to come at us on peace and arms control and the MX. I can’t stand this mindless groveling where we’re supposed to go along with him because he will beat us if we don’t. The way to beat the Gipper is to be different from the Gipper – to stand for something.”

Fred Wertheimer, president of Common Cause, has committed that organization’s substantial lobbying resources to the MX battle, convinced that it will be one of the pivotal issues that elects – and also defeats – candidates in 1984. “It’s going to be the white-heat issue of ’84,” Wertheimer said, “because it’s absolutely seminal. It really does decide whether you do old-style escalation while you try for an arms-control agreement or whether you take a new approach. That’s why there isn’t going to be any let-up on our side.”

Ultimately, Wertheimer believes – and so do I – that the MX roll calls will decide something more basic about democracy: whether grass-roots opinion can muscle its way into the nuclear debate and force establishment insiders to share the important decisions with the people. That would be most unsettling to the insiders, and they won’t let it happen without a tremendous struggle. But that’s what the MX fight is really about. 

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