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5 october 2010
Jimmy Carter is one of a small, eclectic group of American Presidents whose education and early career weren't in any of the fields that traditionally lead to the White House (law, the military, or big business). Carter trained as a naval engineer but neither served nor practiced his profession long. He became a family businessman, and was very successful. Unlike Harry Truman, a small businessman who always had a hand in local politics, Carter had little inclination toward government till he was in his late thirties. In this respect his closest analogues among the Presidents are Woodrow Wilson, an academic, and Ronald Reagan, a Hollywood personality. Like them, Carter could have touches of the melodramatic and grandiose, as well as genuine statesmanlike qualities; unlike them, he was a spectacularly unsuccessful President.
How did he ever get elected? There was the famous grin; there was the tactical brilliance of tramping all over Iowa to win the early caucus vote. But Carter, as Julian Zelizer argues, had no links to the Democratic factions that had put his predecessors John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in office. Labor didn't know him, urban Catholics didn't trust him, black voters certainly thought he was better than George Wallace but were generally lukewarm, Jewish voters would come to loathe him, and the Solid South – though Carter was the last Democrat to carry it as a bloc – seemed to vote for him more out of a hereditary nostalgia than any sense that he was in sympathy with their neo-segregationist aims. But Carter filled a void in Democratic leadership in 1976, and the combination of Southern solidarity and a few Rust Belt states gave him a bare 297 electoral votes.
Zelizer, writing for the Times Books American Presidents series, doesn't do much to revise the conventional notion of Carter as a one-term weakling. Zelizer points out that Carter was elected without any real power-base or constituency, and never worked to develop one. His major legislative triumph was the Panama Canal treaty of 1977-78. Zelizer describes how Carter put every other policy initiative of the first year-and-a-half of his Presidency on hold while he persuaded the Senate to ratify the treaty. As a voluntary retreat from imperialism, the Canal treaty won Carter and the United States new respect abroad. As a voluntary retreat from imperialism, the treaty was, however, a rallying point for a new American Right more interested in symbol than reality. (Zelizer interestingly notes that elders of the old reality-based Right, like Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, saw the wisdom of the Canal treaty.)
And whatever its merits as reality or symbol, one has to ask how important the Panama Canal was at that juncture in American history, and why Carter would spend so much time and political capital on its devolvement. Aren't such treaties the kinds of things that chargés d'affaires negotiate between golf matches and Senators horse-trade for a couple of highway projects? One of Carter's campaign promises, by contrast, was to work for a public/private national health plan involving mandated regulation of medical insurance. In other words, Obamacare could have arrived thirty years earlier than it did had Carter taken advantage of a large Democratic majority to steer a comprehensive health-care bill through Congress.
Though for that matter, Carter could have worked with Ted Kennedy and other Congressional liberals to achieve a single-payer national health service. Yes, the economy was suffering in the late 1970s, but as Presidents from FDR to Obama have shown, bad economic times can be good times for weaving a safety net.
The problem is, of course, that Carter didn't particularly want to achieve a national health guarantee. He was non-ideological in many ways, and he was certainly no liberal. By the end of his term he had become a full-blooded hawk on the Soviet Union. Carter also oversaw turning points in policy that now seem landmarks of conservatism: deregulation of the airlines, for instance, and the normalization of US relations with Communist China that would lead to vast market-driven changes in the world economy.
I don't get the impression from Zelizer's analysis that Carter was sold on the virtues of a free market in health care, but he probably costed it out and figured it was a better decision solely in fiscal terms to let the system muddle along as LBJ had left it, with Medicare and Medicaid propping up a deregulated structure. In that respect Carter is reminiscent of the other engineer President, Herbert Hoover. Though he didn't serve at such a crucial juncture in history, Carter shared Hoover's bent for tactical problem-solving over global vision. (And interestingly, like Hoover, he has become best known as an international humanitarian.)
Carter didn't seem to want to achieve anything globally, though he could be intent in his pursuit of whatever was right in front of him that year. He has been happiest in his retirement solving minor diplomatic crises (often as a kind of freebooter) and building houses with his own hands. As President, he seems to have suffered from two contradictory impulses: he wanted to be acknowledged as the smartest guy in the room, and he wanted to be seen as a humble commoner led by his constituents. The results were often exasperating to his friends and delightful to his opponents.
Zelizer, Julian E. Jimmy Carter. New York: Times Books, 2010.