There He Goes Again? Thoughts on the Jimmy Carter Myth and Barack Obama, Part I

Much has been made in the week since President Obama’s surprisingly smooth victory over Mitt Romney about the extent to which the election revealed not just demographic changes in the electorate, and not just a skepticism on the part of the electorate towards Republican ideology, but the strained interpretative framework through which the GOP, and movement conservatism more specifically, views the world. Witness the rise of a striking number of non-issues since Obama’s victory over John McCain in 2008: the obsession that Obama is not actually an American citizen; that he has been hiding his birth certificate; that there is something potentially so damaging in his transcripts from Occidental, Columbia, or Harvard that they must be shown to the public; or, sadly, the ‘charge’ that Obama is actually a Muslim.

Or look at GOP predictions about the results of the election: ‘My personal guess is you’ll see a Romney landslide, 53 percent-plus . . . in the popular vote, 300 electoral votes-plus’, said Newt Gingrich on the eve of the election. (Oops.) And even when results had confirmed that Obama had, indeed won the election, former Bush Administrator advisor and political strategist Karl Rove disputed the election call that Fox News’ teams of statistical analysts had made, arguing that, somehow, Ohio’s heavily Democratic Cuyahoga County would tip the election in Romney’s favor. It all looks like an example, to use a five-dollar word, of epistemic closure.

No Election Night parties for these dejected Republicans

This is all old news for those of us, your humble narrator included, who follow the punditocracy. One part of the GOP mindset of at least the last four years, though, that has disappeared without a trace in the wake of the election, and yet perhaps best exemplifies the intellectual problem at hand more than any of the above examples, was the Right’s obsession with Jimmy Carter, and more specifically the idea that Obama, like his fellow Democrat Carter, was bound to become a one-term President. This was, it bears reminding, in light of how quickly the election has shut up Republicans on Carter, a repeating theme in much of GOP discourse virtually from the day of Obama’s election in 2008.

The parallels, to the Republicans, seemed to suggest themselves. When Obama succeeded in assassinating Osama bin Laden in a risky raid into Pakistani territory, a Romney aide responded by noting, ‘even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.’ Paul Ryan repeatedly attempted to compare Obama to Carter on the economy, arguing that unemployment had never been higher since Ronald Reagan swept the southern Democrat out of office in one of the biggest Electoral College victories ever. Partly obscured by the Romney campaign’s ill-advised aggressive attack on Obama and US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice following the massacre of the US Ambassador and three State Department employees in Benghazi on September 11 was the fact that the event bore an eerie comparison to 1979, when both the US Embassy in Tehran was captured, and – less famously but perhaps a more precise resemblance – the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph Dubs, was kidnapped and murdered in a hotel in downtown Kabul. With so much similar, was it not history repeating itself?

Is the Carter = Obama myth over?

Well, no. In fact, the Republican obsession with Carter might tell us more about the nature of the GOP’s epistemic problem than it does about the first Obama Administration. But – as I’d like to briefly discuss in this and a following post as a non-specialist in US history nonetheless always interested in the field – the death of the Obama = Carter mythos might, finally, allow for a more tempered debate on what Presidents present and future can learn from the doomed Carter Administration.

Consider the first issue – the extent to which the Carter obsession was actually an example of the GOP’s bizarre intellectual state than any reality in American politics. However often GOP candidates or policy intellectuals attempted to raise the Carter and Obama comparison, the myth rested on two core claims. First, both Presidents were Democrats who presided over a lousy economy. And second, both presided over the office at a time when the United States seemed to be in a state of rollback in a region we can call, to ape Zbigniew Brzezinski’s term for the region, the ‘Arc of Crisis’ (of which more in a follow-up to to this post); the region, in other words, stretching roughly from the Eastern Mediterranean and the Maghreb in the west, to the Indus River in the east, to the transition from the Turkic World into Russian-dominated Eurasia in the north.

Not on this year’s Spring Break 2013 itineraries: a rough approximation of the ‘Arc of Crisis.’

Less paid attention to – ironic since the whole point was to beat Obama in a campaign, after all – was the precise way in which the 1980 election between Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and independent candidate John Anderson (who received some six percent of the vote nationally – not enough to swing the popular, or almost certainly, electoral vote in Carter’s favor) turned out. Even while the fate of the hostages in Tehran was far from clear, and before the slain Dubs’ body had been returned to the United States, prominent Democrats, like Jerry Brown but especially a Ted Kennedy then perhaps at the peak of his dynamism and prominence nationally – Chappaquiddick was a decade removed – stumbled over themselves to try to primary Carter, fearing that he would be creamed by Reagan. (While Kennedy led an acrimonious DNC opposition to Carter, the best forgotten moment of the primaries is probably an incredibly bizarre, and disastrously managed, Jerry Brown speech from the stairs of the Wisconsin Capitol building that involved employing Francis Ford Coppola for special effects.)

 

On the Republican side, meanwhile, while Reagan is correctly remembered as having breezed to the nomination, it bears minding – as my friend Michael Brenes at Hunter College is exploring in a dissertation – that he did so on the back of a rejuvenated Republican grassroots that included not just the famous ‘Reagan Republicans’ – centrist voters gone Republican – but also a large swath of defense industry workers eager to hear about Reagan’s plans for redoubled American re-armament.

Very little of this should ring a bell compared to last Tuesday’s results. On the Democratic side, I wonder if in the future historians will be surprised that there was no serious primary challenge, whether from the right or the left, of President Obama, given the poor state of the economy and skepticism towards his lack of coordinated response to events in the ‘Arc of Crisis.’ True, Republicans fantasized about the possibility of Joe Biden stepping down in favor of Hilary Clinton after the Vice President remarked that Republican rule would mean the shackling of middle-class Americans ‘in chains’, but this just goes to show how much the GOP wishful thinking paradigm, as opposed to actual historical events, drove the conversation this election cycle. More quantitative and more striking, perhaps, is the electoral map itself. Everyone knows that Reagan crushed, of course, but consider the electoral results on a county-by-county basis, as below.

The South will rise again? A county-by-county map of Carter and Reagan’s victories in the 1980 US Presidential election

It’s still clear that Red America won out, but note that the counties that Carter did win are almost exactly in those precise areas of the country where Obama was trounced this time around. Georgia, Carter’s home state and a reliable Republican center, is almost entirely blue. So, too, are huge swaths of the South, as well as parts of Texas. Maybe most striking, however, is the fact that virtually all of California – where Reagan was Governor from 1967 to 1975 – Illinois, and most of the Northeast Corridor was turned Republican, too. Part of this had to do with general dissatisfaction with Carter, of course, and the newfound appeal that Republicans like Reagan found by appealing to white evangelical suburban voters, especially those whose jobs depended on military procurements. Still, it’s amazing to recall how Democratic parts of the South were as recently as 1980. Now compare this map to the map from 2012:

Electoral results on a county-by-county basis, 2012 US Presidential Election

Note some of the changes: other than the Black Belt and the Mississippi River Delta region of western Mississippi, the South and Texas is almost exclusively Republican. The old Democratic South is gone, replaced – sort of – by professionals clustered around the I-95 Corridor up and down the East Coast. In effect, the Democrats traded populations like those in Kentucky, Tennessee, or West Virginia (one of the few states Carter/Mondale II won, but where Romney saw his largest margin of victory over Obama) for a new coalition of white collar voters, liberal fundraising élites in places like Brentwood, Los Altos, and the Upper West Side, and, of course, a growing Latino population in places like California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, where an archipelago of Blue now stands out. The change in the Upper Midwest, too – where Carter won Wisconsin in large part thanks to his running mate from the state – is also dramatic. What used to be solid Republican territory is now solidly Blue, barring those rural parts of the region whence candidates like Representatives Ryan (Janesville, WI) and Michelle Bachmann (suburban northern Minneapolis-St Paul) come to storm Washington.

Given all of these changes in the American electorate, it’s easy – well, easy in retrospect for a grad student cum blogger, at least – could this be another case of the GOP deceiving itself to the point of actively harming its electoral chances? It’s unclear on the level of Party élites or the electoral planners in the Romney campaign. The latter were panned in the week leading up to the election for a ‘head fake’ into ad markets in states that were widely perceived as non-competitive, like Pennsylvania and Minnesota.Given its massive mail and ad blitz in Ohio, Florida, and Virginia, however, it was no secret among the Romney campaign that the election would be decided in those battleground states.

Romney was no Reagan – but nor was Reagan’s electorate Romney’s, a key point that many Republicans might have forgotten in their comparisons of Obama and Carter

 

What interests me more with the Carter myth, however, is the extent to which the relentless propagandization of the Obama = Carter story might have lulled parts of the GOP base and the media figures whose careers depending on stoking that base – the offensive and insensitive Ann Coulter, or the conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza, or the radio juggernaut Rush Limbaugh – into a false sense of confidence. If Obama were Carter, the story goes, there was no need to moderate GOP ideology – ‘legitimate rape’ or ‘47%’ – and they were in for an easy victory. But like I’ve tried to suggest here – and as the polls confirmed in some crude sense – while the exterior circumstances of both Administrations might have seemed superficially similar, Obama and Carter had both very different roads to their second election, and were relying on a very different cadre of Americans to deliver them to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Maybe if GOP voters and their media figures had taken the Obama machine more seriously from Day One, rather than calling him a ‘retard’ (as did Coulter) and comparing him to a President widely viewed as a failure, things might have turned out differently. Might have.

So much for the Carter = Obama myth? Well, one hopes so. But as I hope to explore in a follow-up to this post, now that the immature and superficial comparisons are, perhaps, over with, the political landscape might allow Americans to take a more nuanced view of the Carter Presidency and try to ask – as American historians are doing nowadays – how it fits in to the 1970s, and what, if any, constructive lessons either President Obama or a future Republican Administration might take from those beleaguered years. If there’s one lesson to the rise and fall of the Carter image from 2009 – 2012, it’s that shallow and politically motivated analyses of past Presidents rarely prove of much utility, so maybe – as I’ll hope to show – by taking Carter more seriously and on his own terms, and comparing his challenges to Obama’s today in a, erm, more respectful light, we can even learn something.

Stay posted!

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2 thoughts on “There He Goes Again? Thoughts on the Jimmy Carter Myth and Barack Obama, Part I

  1. Jordan Anderson

    My remarks are more of a comparison/commentary on the recent election. President Reagan maintains one of the highest retrospective approval ratings of all time, while Jimmy Carter is remembered, as you cited, in association with the Iranian hostages, a poor economy, and the oil crisis (turning off the heat in the White House and wearing sweaters during national addresses). It is undstandable why republicans would want to construct and capitalize on such an uneven comparison. However, despite its lack of correlation I found the comparison to not only be a comparison made by pundits but also directly by the Romney campaign. The strategy was very apparent for the republicans when Governor Romney began rhetorically using the same question that Reagan closed the 1980 presidential debate with, “Ask yourself if you are better off now than you were four years ago”. The Romney campaign successfully wove this question throughout the Governor’s stump speech, and it was a powerful question for voters to consider as they weighed the candidates. Obviously this incumbent attack worked very well in 1980, but I think that it is interesting to wonder why it may not have stuck as well in 2012. I think that it could be associated with the gradual recovery that seemed to consistently confound the woeful economic message that the republicans continued to purport. As jobs numbers continued to increase month after month and unemployment dropped below 8% in October, people could perhaps begin to see that maybe 4 years just wasn’t enough time to get out of the hole. Alternatively, I feel that hurricane Sandy was indirectly advantageous for the President, and that could have been the decisive event that swayed many people’s views of the President’s leadership capabilities, and there is little I can think of historically to make a comparison but I admittedly haven’t exactly put much time into studying correlations between meteorology and political elections.

  2. The Kaleidoscope

    I heard an analysis that the campaign of Obama was more effective in using “new” interactive media which was more dialog orientated than classical media (which is more or less a one-sided monologue). The other point is also the republicans lose potential voters even amongst quite conservative Hispanics (catholic values, some turn out to be economically successful after a while) who stick to the Democrats because their interests are better represented by them. I guess the Republicans will have to change their campaigns in the future and broaden their target audience.

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