• U.S.

In Carter’s Shadow

4 minute read
Ramesh Ponnuru

The ghost of Jimmy Carter is haunting the 2008 campaign. Well, let me restate that: the ghost of his presidency haunts the 2008 campaign. As for Carter, he certainly has not passed on; he is an active freelance diplomat and campaign consultant. In recent days he has told Hillary Clinton to “give it up” in June and estimated the size of Israel’s nuclear stockpile. (Other previous Presidents have kept tactfully silent about its very existence.) Earlier, both John McCain and Barack Obama had felt compelled to denounce Carter’s meeting with representatives of Hamas. Carter’s almost predictable intrusions into the news have done little to sway events, but they have conjured memories of a past that the current President and his two would-be successors are trying not to repeat.

Start with President George W. Bush, whose deep unpopularity has set the tone for the campaign. In the late 1970s, the public came to regard Carter as a failed President, and his failure colored attitudes toward his party for more than a decade. Republicans tied Democrat after Democrat to the stagflation and foreign policy weakness of that era. Now Republicans worry that perceptions of Bush are going to hurt them for a generation.

Voters who came of age in the 1980s were strongly Republican, thinking Ronald Reagan had brought America back. By contrast, young people today identify themselves as strongly Democratic. They disapprove of Bush and the Iraq war in large percentages, worry about their economic futures and have started paying attention to politics at a time when Republicans have often been making the news for incompetence and scandal.

Bush probably thought he had avoided going down as a failure when he won a second term, which had eluded Carter (and Bush’s father). But the only sure way for him to escape that fate is for a Republican to win the presidency this year. Reagan would have seemed a less transformative figure if Michael Dukakis had succeeded him, and Bill Clinton would have had a deeper impact on his party and the country if Al Gore had won in 2000. Whatever their past differences, Bush has ample reason to root for McCain now.

Of the two likely nominees this year, Obama is closest to Carter in background and policy leanings. The parallels between his campaign so far and the one Carter ran in 1976 are striking. Like Carter, Obama had little national experience when he started to run. Neither was given much chance of winning the nomination. Instead of running on a detailed platform, Carter told crowds that what Washington needed was “a government as good as its people”–just as Obama promises “change we can believe in.” Carter’s message sold well after Richard Nixon’s disgrace, and press accounts from the time suggest that people found the born-again Carter to be charismatic. That parallel is a promising one for Obama.

But his Carterish echoes come with two potential dangers. The first is that running as the embodiment of hope can lend itself to a certain self-righteousness–what critics have already started to call élitism. The second danger is that the public will come to see Obama as naive about America’s enemies abroad, as it eventually concluded Carter was. Ever since Obama said he was willing to negotiate with those enemies directly and “without precondition,” Republicans have been trying to tag him as the son of the Georgia governor.

And what about McCain? The Arizona Senator, who once joked about bombing Iran, may seem to be the opposite of Carter. But Republicans should consider what he has in common with the ex-President as well. Both men attended the U.S. Naval Academy, and their years in the Navy were, by their own accounts, deeply formative. There are more worrying parallels for McCain. When Carter won in 1976, Democrats thought they had gotten a new lease on life. Democrats ran the White House and Congress, and the congressional leadership was more liberal than ever before. But Carter’s win was an anomaly in a nation that was at the time moving rightward. Carter had eked out a paper-thin victory only because of Watergate, stagflation and defeat in Vietnam. McCain might win a narrow victory this year by running away from his party, but conservatism is fading now as liberalism was fading in the ’70s. Not even winning this year’s presidential race will be enough to revive it–unless, as President, McCain refashions conservatism for a new era. Carter made his presidency the servant of a dying creed. Would McCain make the same mistake?

Obama and McCain will spend the fall fighting to be the 44th President. Both they and Bush will also fight to avoid any comparisons with the 39th.

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