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Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Carter

For almost as long as I can remember, the presidency of Jimmy Carter has been the emblem of managerial incompetence in the White House. Republicans ran on this mantra for decades after the Carter presidency had ended. I vaguely remember one Republican presidential candidate -- it was probably Bob Dole, from the sound of it -- who just had a substanceless little chant in his speeches of "Jimmy Carter Jimmy Carter Jimmy Carter Democrats." He didn't need to say more.

And of course Democrats equally accept the spin that Carter, for all his personal grace and intelligence and moral commitment, was a disastrously incompetent executive. The conventional wisdom that he is a better ex- than president is of course just another way of saying that he's better when he has no actual responsibilities. When was the last time a Democrat defended Carter's presidency?

But what's actually the case against Carter? Journeying through my drug-addled memory banks, back to my mid-teens, I remember two helicopters crashing in the desert in Iran, in an overambitious effort to rescue the hostages. I recall that he couldn't get inflation under control -- but then neither could his Republican predecessors, and it was Carter who appointed Paul Volcker to the Fed, and Volcker who finally applied the medicine. (And it's interesting to note that most analyses of economic well-being, hourly wages, household income, manufacturing, etc., use 1979 as a benchmark, because the Carter era was the high point before a long period of decline in those measures.) There was some weird business about micromanaging the White House tennis court schedule. And there was the "malaise" speech, except that he didn't really use the word malaise, but apparently failed to show the requisite Reaganesque optimism. There was also some mismanagement of the relationship with the Congressional barons of the time, a couple of small-town scandals, and some in-fighting in the cabinet.

So that's the case against Carter, on competence. How does that stack up against: The loss of a major American city and tens of thousands of lives due to failure to prepare? A war of choice based on false intelligence that's rapidly turning into a quagmire? A fiscal surplus turned into a deficit in the $300-$400 billion range? Making a wreck of Medicare? A botched attempt to eliminate Social Security? Allowing some of your top aides to deliberately reveal the identity of a CIA agent for political purposes?

I look forward to the day, and it will come, when the mere chant, "George Bush Republicans" will convey everything that needs to be said about this wretched era.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 7, 2005 | Permalink


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It applies to the good and the bad. I've long been fascinated by the Carter presidency because it happened when I was a little kid first trying to learn about politics. I've always thought it interesting that the ratcheting up of Cold War tensions that we associate with the Reagan era actually started under Carter, in response to Soviet involvement in Afghanistan.

Carter really was very unpopular, probably because of inflation, oil shocks and his eat-your-peas style of hortatory leadership. Nobody likes to be told to make sacrifices, and over energy conservation, Carter managed to do it without being inspiring. I think that's really most of it, and it's why today's politicians have such a dangerous horror of energy conservation campaigns.

There's a sort of political legend that what ruined him was the Iran hostage crisis, but if you look at poll numbers, he was already in the basement before it started and actually got a rally-round-the-flag popularity spike when it started, like Sept. 11 only smaller. It didn't last.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin | Sep 7, 2005 8:49:05 AM

I look forward to the day, and it will come, when the mere chant, "George Bush Republicans" will convey everything that needs to be said about this wretched era.

Let's stop looking forward and start calling these neocon con-artists what they are: George Bush Republicans!

Posted by: Sean Hurley | Sep 7, 2005 8:59:29 AM

Our children will ask us about what it was like to live through this era. It will be the Sixties, but writ large with a lot more biblical style-wreaking and tons more bodies.

Posted by: Rob W | Sep 7, 2005 9:53:42 AM

I have written this about Tom Delay, but it applies to George W. Bush as well. Justice will be served if Jenna and Barbara's kids feel the need to change their last names so as to avoid the tarnish from their grandfather.

Posted by: theCoach | Sep 7, 2005 10:13:11 AM

Didn't Carter have a CEA member who used the word "depression", was then upbraided by the political staff for using the word "depression", then continued to give the same pessimistic speeches, only replacing "depression" with "bananas"? That strikes me as poor management.

The sweater speech is often cited as incompetence in the sense that it accepts the state of the world rather than tries to change it.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Sep 7, 2005 10:41:38 AM

Great post Mark. Perhaps the day you envision has already arrived? To wit, George Allen is not a viable presidential candidate because he is a George Bush Republican. See how easy that is.

Posted by: fnook | Sep 7, 2005 1:39:41 PM


You write that "Democrats equally accept the spin that Carter" was incompetent. But even at the time, most Democrats considered Carter incompetent. Remember, Carter and his arrogant "Georgia mafia" pissed off Congressional Democrats right from the get-go in 1977. To wit:
This refusal to play by the rules of Washington also contributed to the Carter administration's difficult relationship with Congress. Jordan and Frank Moore, in particular, feuded with leading Democrats like House Speaker Tip O'Neill from the start. Unreturned phone calls, insults (both real and imagined), and an unwillingness to trade political favors soured many on Capitol Hill and tangibly affected the president's ability to push through his ambitious agenda.
"There was an innocence, and an arrogance, about the idea that you could run the country with your Atlanta statehouse team -- you just couldn't," concludes historian Roger Wilkins. "Every president brings his people, but most presidents bring people who are seasoned people who really understand Washington and know how to move around the city. That just wasn't true of Jimmy Carter. You hate to say it, but it was often, it seemed, very amateurish."
Amateurish indeed. By 1979, Ted Kennedy was prepared to mount a serious primary challenge, had it not been for the Iranian hostage crisis that fall. There's no question that many of the things Carter was stuck with--oil shocks, stagflation--were beyond his control. But Carter's amateurish and ineffectual governing style, which pissed off his entire party, also played a critical role.

Posted by: Joey | Sep 7, 2005 2:42:59 PM

What a glossy view on Carter's administration. Ridiculous.

I'm not saying Bush is good by any stretch of the imagination, but saying Carter wasn't that bad is just foolish.

Posted by: Peter | Sep 7, 2005 2:59:14 PM

I'm afraid the brief against Carter is quite a bit more extensive than you remember. Much of it is unfair, but the perception was real.

One big event you omitted was the energy crisis. Remember gas lines? Carter appeared on television wearing a sweater and asked people to turn up their thermostats. He called his energy plan "the moral equivalent of war"--a phrase he borrowed from William James, but the acronym for which, as Russell Baker noted, is "meow." That hurt. Carter's plan was eviscerated by Tip O'Neill, who never much liked him, and the sense that he was ineffectual stuck.

Carter also got stung by an Atlantic article by James Fallows, who had been a speechwriter for a year, which pointed out, among other things, that Carter obsessed over trivia like who got to play on the White House tennis courts.

And the malaise speech was not just a speech--it followed weeks of soul searching during which he fired half the Cabinet. It really appeared that he did not know what he was doing. And that was before the hostage crisis.

By late 1979 Carter did not have much support from liberal Democrats, who were powerful in Congress and in the party. They practically begged Kennedy to run against him.

I was in the Kennedy faction, but in retrospect (certainly in comparison to Reagan) I thought Carter did pretty well as president. But it sure didn't seem that way at the time.

Posted by: Bob | Sep 7, 2005 3:46:47 PM

I have written this about Tom Delay, but it applies to George W. Bush as well. Justice will be served if Jenna and Barbara's kids feel the need to change their last names so as to avoid the tarnish from their grandfather.

But wouldn’t they have different last names anyway? Bush has no sons ... shows what God thinks of his purported manhood.

Posted by: SullyWatch | Sep 7, 2005 4:22:42 PM

I view Carter's policy decisions as close to brilliant -- Camp David Accord (Egypt-Israel peace still holds), conservation policy that sent oil into a price tailspin, human-rights as a foreign policy concern, fiscally conservative budgets, the Paul Vokker appointment as Federal Reserve chairman, vetoing the B1 Bomber because it was old technology, secretly funding stealth aircraft technology. I view his political image control as disaster -- collapse at 10k race, attacked by a rabbit while fishing, being a voluntary hostage in the White House, announcing recessions without spin.

His problem was not his management of the country. It was is unwillingness to 'spin' his image. President Reagan excelled at image control.

His eventual political demise was due, first, to the lack of acceptance by the Democratic Party. He was too conservative for the northern liberals of the party. Reagan won the election because there was rebellion within the Democratic Party. Senator Kennedy forged the dagger by announced that he was running for president. As Kennedy announced eventual support of President Carter at the convention, John Anderson was willing to use the dagger by initiating a third party candidacy. No re-election has been successful when a third party cadidate appears on the ticket ... as with Bush Senior.

His second political death was to his image. The Reagan Administration lambasted him for every ill that occurred. Carter was and still is the Republican whipping boy. He is now remembered as a buffoon. The Republican image machine of the last 25 years has been polishing Republican icons (primarily Reagan, Bush, and Bush) and demolishing potential Democratic icons (Carter, Clinton, and Sen. Clinton). The Republican machine is very mean spirited ... and it has worked!

Posted by: Vince | Sep 7, 2005 7:19:51 PM

The Republican machine certainly has been effective as all get out, but the point of Mark's post above, I think, is to say that we've reach the end of the line. No amount of spit will be enough to shine the shit stains that the Bushies leave behind in the White House. Notwithstanding all the fascinating Carter arcana outlined above, I think Mark's right about this and can easily envision the day when "George Bush Republican" is treated first and foremost as a slanderous label that honest conservatives everywehere actively seek to avoid.

Posted by: fnook | Sep 7, 2005 8:28:47 PM

I do think you're forgetting some more extensive managerial problems. As some have already noted, particularly the degree to which the Carter Administration needlessly poisoned their relationship to Congressional Democrats pretty early on, but also in a lot of in-fighting and contradiction within the Carter White House and the Cabinet. There's figures like Bert Lance to recall as well.

Some of Carter's more serious policy problems are also worth recalling, though some of them were not of his making alone, some of which have been dumped on his doorstep unfairly, and some of which he didn't get the credit for responding to effectively eventually (as you note in the case of Volker). But it did take his Administration a while to meaningfully bring resources to bear on stagflation. His human rights policy was applied inconsistently (esp. with Vance and Brzezinski sabotaging each other). His Administration mishandled the crisis in Iran pretty badly (pre-hostages), particularly in underestimating the consequences of admitting the Shah for medical treatment. I think it's reasonably fair to say that Carter had enormous difficulty communicating any impression of resolve on a number of important issues, which may have been particularly problematic in the case of Afghanistan--this is the image problem others have alluded to, and it's not a trivial matter, but instead an important part of the modern Presidency's effectiveness.

There's a lot of good things to say about the Carter Administration, too, but I don't think the impression that he made serious mistakes is entirely a mean-spirited artifact of "spin".

Posted by: Timothy Burke | Sep 7, 2005 10:10:11 PM

Jimmy Cracker betrayed the Democratic base continually. He supported human rights, but restored aid to the Salvadoran government after its soldiers had murdered American nuns. In 1978, when South African troops attacked a refugee camp deep in Angola, slaughtering hundreds of civilians, he and his administration said and did nothing. When an FBI investigation proved that the Pinochet regime had murdered both Orlando Letelier and American Ronnie Moffitt in a bombing in Washington DC, Cracker did virtually nothing. He also completely screwed up the chances to get national healthcare because he refused to support Ted Kennedy's approach. Instead, he produced an approach that was doomed to go nowhere. Cracker also allowed the Shah into the US without first withdrawing the staff from the US embassy in Iran. Then he used the hostage crisis to attack Ted Kennedy. The day of the Wisconsin primary in 1980, Carter went on TV to claim that he had solved the hostage crisis. His lie won that primary, but when the day ended, the hostages were still being held. He deserved to lose in a landslide.

Posted by: Bill | Sep 7, 2005 11:21:58 PM

In my memory, the two most competent Presidents, if you disregard ideology, are Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush.

Though both lost their re-election bids to challengers who more politically adept, Carter and Bush Sr. both governed responsibly.

Posted by: Julian | Sep 7, 2005 11:31:35 PM

At the risk of repeating what others have said (I only skimmed the comments), Carter was the only president in my lifetime who realized that our oil habit was tethering us to the most unstable, hate-filled part of the planet, and tried to do something about it. A century from now, he will be remembered as the greatest American leader since Eisenhower.

Posted by: sglover | Sep 8, 2005 12:22:34 AM

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and I love the idea of Jimmy Carter, but the managerial charges against him are just.

First, he developed no solid relationship to Capitol Hill. They were just a bunch of strangers to him. Hard to make things happen when you owe no favors, nobody owes you favors.

Second, the guy placed competence over ideology to a degree that is harmful, when you are at that level of power. He had both hawks and doves in his defense advisory positions, which sounds great in theory but in practice means you get a lot of disagreements and arguments. Bush and Reagan have that right, basically -- better to pursue a clear line with the people who can best pursue that line, not just get the smartest people you can find.

I just copyedited a book on the relationship between Korea and the US. At a moment when the South Korean leadership most needed our support, after a Vietnam War during which the US often broke promises to SoKo, Carter chose to harp on some relatively minor human rights abuses rather than actually cultivate a working relationship with their leader.

So then he goes and visits Seoul and they have a bunch of contentious meetings. On the way back to the airport -- I swear to God -- according to the book Carter tried to convert the SoKo leader to Christianity! I almost fell out of my chair!

Realizing that SoKo was either an ally or not, Reagan accepted SoKo warts and all, which was the right move. (The lack of tension in the Reagan chapter was palpable.)

I'd love for Carter's politics to be in the WH again, but not his management style.

Then again, after the Bush bunch, who are incompetent in the opposite direction -- too much control, too much discipline etc. -- anything would be better.

Posted by: Martin | Sep 8, 2005 2:21:56 AM

For every instance in which Carter is being cited here as incompetent, they seem almost trivial when one looks at the mistakes (or downright malicious, wrongheaded, bad things) made by Reagan in the same areas. And George Bush is a LOT worse.

I agree with Matt Yglesias's comment in Tapped about this post. Opinion and images from the past are worked and re-worked by the affluent people who control our media. And these people do better under Republican administrations, where the rich are free to beat up on the poor and can have a party while our children pick up the tab. That is why people now think more highly of Reagan than of Carter.

Posted by: dan | Sep 8, 2005 4:56:00 AM

I agree that there Carter missteps in management, but generally his efforts are intelligent. It is his public presentation that is painful.

The most important concept of politics of the last 25 years has been image control. The Republicans have perfected it. They have been mean-spirited in their attacks on opponents. And they have made even George W. Bush Jr. look good. That is miraculous! Maybe God is on their side.

Posted by: Vince | Sep 8, 2005 10:24:51 AM

Thank you for trying to judge Carter's presidency fairly, Mr. Schmitt. FWIW, Bill Clinton was also given little respect by a Democratic Congress from 1992 to 1994, and I think that contributed to the Republican's great successes in the 1994 elections.

Posted by: David W. | Sep 8, 2005 10:48:36 AM

It was the rabbit that really did it. And malaise. And don't forget the Playboy interview. He was too human, too naive, and too unscripted to survive the sharks in Washington.

News photographers had not been allowed near the president when he went fishing April 30, but a White House photographer was there. When White House aides doubted Carter's claim, the president ordered enlargements of the pictures, and a rabbit could be seen swimming toward the canoe.

A staff member who saw the picture said: "It was a killer rabbit. The president was swinging for his life."

Seriously, I like JC too. But, let's face it, he was no JFK.

At least he never said "Noocular."

Posted by: Adams | Sep 8, 2005 12:53:21 PM

You are correct that Carter was a better president than Bush, and surely prescient in coining the term "Bush Republican". Note also that Zogby says Carter would defeat Bush in a head to head race: http://zogby.com/news/ReadNews.dbm?ID=1020

But I sure as hell would not want Carter to be president again.

Posted by: Nonplussed | Sep 8, 2005 3:51:12 PM

No, Jimmy said 'nu`cluh.'

He recognized and tried to use spin, or at least symbolism, and was mocked for it at the time (remember Doonesbury's 'Secretary of Symbolism' who quit because Carter's commitment was only symbolic?)

Carter was an ok spinner by the standards of the day (which weren't very high -- the atheletic Gerald Ford was turned into the stumbler who hit folks with tennis and golf balls), but looks like a piker when judged by the much higher standard set by Reagan. And remember that the Reagan PR folks are in awe of W's machine.

As to later reputations, I fear 'history is written by the winners' while holding out some hope for a Truman-like improvement in reputation. It'll be sung about on Chicago LXXVI!

Posted by: MaryCh | Sep 8, 2005 3:53:38 PM

When the Iranian Students seized the American Embassy and took hostages, Carter sent a message to the Iranians through the Swiss, that if a single hostage was harmed the United States would invade Iran. He didn't bluster about smirking "bring it on." He didn't sleep walk through some Reaganesque speech. Carter was tough, he just wasn't a Cowboy.

Posted by: Schtu | Sep 8, 2005 4:20:58 PM

The final paragraph of Dan Froomkin's 9/20/05 WAPO White House Briefing states: "The American Spectator reports that Bush's ambitious second-term agenda is so dead that rumors 'are flying through various departments of longtime senior Bush loyalists looking to jump, but with few opportunities in the private sector to make the jump look like anything more than desperation.'"

Posted by: fnook | Sep 21, 2005 9:31:40 AM