Emotions are still running a bit high from the election. That’s actually reasonable, given the stakes, but such emotion often leads to statements which do not really stand up to inspection, one common to this week being that we have returned to 1976. I understood the analogy right away: A new president replacing a party presumed to be in disgrace, that new president having remarkably little experience but supported by a party in control of both chambers of Congress. A public disillusionment with a recent war and a desire to hide from conflicts, coupled with uncertainty about the economy and a moral desire to be good global citizens. At first glance, there seem to be a lot of similarities between Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter.
But let’s look deeper. First, James Earl Carter was governor of the state of Georgia when he was elected to the White House, while Barack Obama was a senator from the state of Illinois. In some respects, it is all the more remarkable that a sitting senator won election as president for only the second time since 1920. Four of the last five presidents served as governors, in large part because governors are not only executives but also have direct knowledge of the difference between how the federal and state governments function, and this is generally reflected in the manner in which governors explain their positions as presidential candidates. Carter was much more specific and direct in his positions during the 1976 campaign.
Jimmy Carter served seven years as a naval officer, following his graduation from Annapolis. Barack Obama has never served in the military. Jimmy Carter owned and ran a large successful business before entering politics, while Barack Obama has nothing but politics in his resume, no business experience of any kind whatsoever. Jimmy Carter won in the now-traditional ‘Southern Strategy’, based on southern states and majority demographics. Barack Obama won through a media flood and with hundreds of millions of dollars from hidden sponsors targeted at major urban centers and demographic minorities.
Conditions are different as well. Carter inherited a stable economy with modest growth, and a half-global American hegemony of influence and power. Obama inherits an economy in crisis and a global community which threatens key American interests in dozens of locations and issues. Carter inherited a cold war condition, with a reasonable yet implacable enemy with the capability of ending all human life on the planet. Obama inherits a continuing War on Terror, with no main enemy capable of destroying the nation but a myriad number of small but vicious groups which mean to kill Americans and destabilize our nation and our allies, who cannot be reasoned with and who have no limits to their rapacity and cruelty. Women, children, the innocent are not only considered valid targets but are often the preferred targets by these groups. The main enemy of the United States today is a large and populous nation which controls much and influences more, which pretends both civility and a love of peace yet prepares for what it sees as an inevitable confrontation with America, one in which the loser is annihilated.
In 1976, Carter won on issues of re-establishing a standard of accountability in the White House, of addressing real-world needs of Americans, and in a spirit of respect for his opponents. Today, Obama won on vague promises which cannot be fulfilled in practice, on intimidation and social pressure to conform, and with deliberate malice towards anyone who did not fall into line. In 1976, pollution meant carbon monoxide, which kills all living things. Today, pollution means carbon dioxide, which is necessary for plant life and which is generally benign to animals. Carter tried to ‘zero base’ the federal budget, to rein back any spending that could not be proven to be absolutely necessary. Today, Obama has already promised trillions of dollars in new spending, but with no solid answer for how it would be paid for, and how it would prove to be effective.
In 1976, republicans could take comfort in the fact that Gerald Ford only lost by a couple points to Carter, and that Ronald Reagan had already demonstrated a capability and competency that would see him elected four years later. In 2008, McCain’s campaign was disjointed and lacked a clear message, and there is no clear leader for the party for 2012.
In 1976, there was hope. In 2008, there is no hope.