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September 07, 2005

Carter V. Bush

Mark Schmitt writes up a rousing cry to replace Jimmy Carter with George W. Bush in the pantheon of hapless, incompetent, Presidents. As he notes, what happened under Jimmy ain't nothing compared to what's gone down under George -- the numbers alone should consign Bush to political pariah status. And Mark, as he so often does, gets it right. If the world were rational, Bush would join the pantheon of the disgraced. But it isn't. And what we disdain Carter for isn't rational either.

Carter isn't maligned because of the economic indicators and foreign policy misadventures he presided over; his failures were communicative, narrative. Bush stays afloat on Iraq -- though he's rapidly sinking -- by making it a heroic battle, wherein withdrawal and recognition of our casualties equals defeat. So long as he staves off the "D" word and uses it to tar Democrats, he can keep portraying this as a respectable, if costly, fight, not a misguided and losing act of hubris.

Carter, conversely, presided over a loss. We lost in Iran. Our helicopters went down and America was humbled. And after they went down, Carter, because he's responsible, didn't try to mount an invasion or carpetbomb Tehran, he just swallowed the humiliation and returned to diplomacy. In the end, the hostages survived. I doubt they'd have been so lucky under Bush.

American Presidents cannot admit defeat. Pain or failure must be incorporated into a larger narrative of triumph or resiliency. The current deficit is the fault of 9/11, the result of a brave country reemerging into the world to hunt down evildoers and spread Good Things. Carter's deficit was, well, partially our fault, and in any case up to us to change. The Bush deficit requires no sacrifice whatsoever -- it even comes with tax cuts. It's a paper deficit, his wars are TV wars. With Carter, our failures abroad came home in oil prices and our budgetary problems caused stagflation. Americans got hurt, and they don't like to be hurt. Right now, they're just bystanders in a surprisingly fastpaced play -- even though the plot is rapidly becoming a downer, they've no reason to call for the curtain. That won't last forever, but its' proved surprisingly resilient right now.

Carter lost because he was responsible, honest, realistic. He didn't tell the American people what wasn't true, and he didn't protect them from psychic and economic pain. Bush, if nothing else, has spent his presidency insulating Americans from his decisions. His bill, of course, will eventually come due. The only question is, does reality hit in the next three years, or does the country implode under his successor?

September 7, 2005 in Electoral Politics | Permalink


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Why should a president spread psychic pain? Worrying about the economy is what policy wonks' job is, not that of regular americans.

Posted by: dan | Sep 7, 2005 5:02:09 PM

Carter just wasn't good enough at being a sociopath. Neither was Kerry, and you can look at the 2nd presidential debate if you want to see what I mean. As for Bush, either the past 5 years have been a grand experiment into the validity of prospect theory, or else this country is majorly fucked.

Posted by: SamAm | Sep 7, 2005 5:14:00 PM

Keep 'em stupid and ignorant -- that's the ticket!

Posted by: Ezra | Sep 7, 2005 5:14:21 PM

Right, Ezra - that our faith-based, non-science education system is for; average tax-payers will be too stupid to feel the money being stolen right out of their pockets.

Posted by: CParis | Sep 7, 2005 5:32:00 PM

I can't imagine the hostages surviving under any president excecpt Carter, not even Clinton. In a sense, Carter let the Iranian revolutionaries take it out on him, by costing him reelection (and possibly plotting with his opponent), which they crowed about, rather than on the hostages. Having humiliated Carter, there was no need to tempt fate, and Reagan, by executing Americans.

There's a great passage in Hertzberg's essay "A Moral Ideologue" in which he talks about a photo-op they tried to do with Carter where he industriously worked through a pile of papers on his desk (you've probably read it). And Carter, during the shoot, looks at the papers and says "These are a bunch of props my aides gave me" before going on to make his address.

Bush, on the other hand, completely breaks down if there are no props, preferably human ones. He's the anti-Carter. Digby has put up that revolting picture of Bush in the flightsuit again. I may have to give up sex again for another six months.

Posted by: tlaura | Sep 7, 2005 5:33:35 PM

In the end, the hostages survived.

Well, that was pretty glossed over. Just days after Reagan took office, he had them out of there. I know there is some controversy over how it was done.....but let's be clear. Reagan got it done. Carter didn't.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Sep 7, 2005 5:39:08 PM

You know absolutely zero history, huh Fred? Carter negotiated the release. It was supposed to happen slightly before the changeover. Khomeini -- and this isn't speculation, this is historical record -- made a decision that he would avenge Mossadeq's CIA-led overthrow by destroying the presidency of a single US leader. It happened to be Carter. This had absolutely nothing to do with Reagan and, for that matter, nothing to do with Carter. To suggest otherwise is simple ignorance.

And TLaurA -- that's a great essay. His piece on Reagan is similarly good.

Posted by: Ezra | Sep 7, 2005 5:44:24 PM

Fred, I was 6 years old at the time, and even _I_ remember that the hostages were released from Iran minutes, not days, after Reagan's inauguration. Neither Reagan, nor his administration, "did" anything to get them released.

Posted by: Constantine | Sep 7, 2005 5:47:27 PM

Wikipedia's got a good rundown, as does Ken Pollack's The Persian Puzzle. Here's a nut graf from Wiki:

"Shortly after the election, the lame duck Carter administration, with the assistance of intermediaries such as Algerian diplomat Abdulkarim Ghuraib, opened fruitful negotiations began between the U.S. and Iran. In exchange for the unfreezing of 8 billion dollars worth of Iranian assets and immunity from lawsuits Iran might have faced, the hostages were to be freed. On January 20, 1981, minutes after President Reagan's inauguration, the hostages were formally released into U.S. custody, having spent 444 days in captivity."

I'm sure Reagan has just kept his three minutes of critical dealmaking immediately speaking the oath a secret. He hated press, after all.

Posted by: Ezra | Sep 7, 2005 5:55:22 PM

Also, Matt gets it very right over at TAPPED:

"Carter gets his bad reputation primarily from the fact that the late 1970s were a very bad time in America to be a middle-class professional. Journalists, academics, economists, stock analysts, etc. -- all suffered a lot from inflation. Lots of people -- union members, poor people, retirees -- did very well in the '70s, but they don't get to shape opinion and popular memory."

Posted by: tlaura | Sep 7, 2005 5:55:40 PM

On January 20, 1981, minutes after President Reagan's inauguration, the hostages were formally released into U.S. custody...

Carter negoiated, all right, for over a year and accomplished nothing. However, the election took place and they knew who was elected and who would be taking office and who they would have to deal with then.

Carter had over a year to make it happen and it happened only after Ronnie was elected. Yeah, timing had absolutely nothing to do with it, eh?

Posted by: Fred Jones | Sep 7, 2005 7:17:24 PM

Carter had over a year to make it happen and it happened only after Ronnie was elected. Yeah, timing had absolutely nothing to do with it, eh?

Yeah, Zimmy, that's it. And a few seconds later, Gorbachev told the Tooth Fairy that he was immediately dismantling the USSR for fear of getting a mean look from ol' Ronnie!

Posted by: sprocket | Sep 7, 2005 7:43:14 PM

Timing had everything to do it -- hence the Mossadeq connection, which I already explained.

Posted by: Ezra | Sep 7, 2005 7:46:59 PM

Obviously, "the plan" all along has been to have the implosion in 2009. Many of Bush's plans for tax cuts and the like were timed out with that in mind.

Hooverizing the Democrat elected in 2008 would cement the permanent Republican majority.


Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Sep 7, 2005 9:53:41 PM

So Freddy is Zimmy? I should've figured as much. Even after getting tossed from Pandagon and here, his pitiful life demands he attention whore here. Yawn.

Back to the topic at hand, the true sign of Bush's Carterization will be if the GOP turns on him like Teddy Kennedy and the Dems turned on ol' Jimmy. It hasn't happened yet, but I imagine that the GOP is so tuned in with perpetual campaigning that the real watershed won't be until 2006.

Posted by: Dustbin Of History | Sep 7, 2005 10:12:54 PM

If they doe Carterise Bush, its probably a bad thing for republicans Bush never appointed his successor. This way, there is not easy contrast of 'Bush' republicans (ie bush, his heir apparent) and 'conservative' republicans.

Posted by: dan | Sep 7, 2005 11:06:32 PM

I really liked Mark's post.

All this week a little thought has popping up in my thoughts again and again:

"The buck stops here."

Dubya sure as hell ain't no Truman.

Of course, this is hardly a revelation.

Posted by: pansauce | Sep 7, 2005 11:31:31 PM

I find it amusing that Carter was probably the only US President to actualy behave like a christian, and yet he is so reviled by the lunatic fringe of snake handlers at the reigns of power today.

Posted by: Naked Ape | Sep 8, 2005 12:34:21 AM

Had a big debate on Carter vs. Bush over at the Daily Pepper. I was in diapers during Carter, and I just know that Carter was a good guy with some bungling problems. I learned so much from the comments about all the good that Carter did, and I hope his legacy is preserved in time.

Besides, Bush is on a par with Warren G. Harding. And Warren G. is the absolute rock-bottom as far as I'm concerned.

Posted by: Pepper | Sep 8, 2005 12:56:27 AM

Carter seems like a good person. I read one of his memoirs, An Hour Before Daylight. I don't know if it was ghostwritten, or what, but whomever put the pen to page there was talented.

Posted by: TJ | Sep 8, 2005 12:58:22 AM

Carter seems like a good person.

Carter was a great guy. About that, there is no debate. It was his effectiveness as president that was always the issue.

Posted by: Fred Jones | Sep 8, 2005 9:07:56 AM

I agree with you on the power of spin, but I do think that the perception of competence can be shaped by an administration's response to events, provided the events are significant enough.

Hoover is the one I'm thinking of here--he didn't ever admit failure, but in the face of the Depression, people utterly repudiated his ideology and governing strategy, to the point where they viewed his administraion as incompetent and fiddling while the nation starved (my undertanding is that this was false. His aproach didn't fail because he was incompetent--his approach failed because it was the wrong approach.)

In a certain way, Hoover and Bush form an ironic pair. Hoover was an excellent administrator and devoted humanitarian whose economic ideology led to policy decisions that were the wrong prescription. It was the wrong solution, but it was honestly come to and competently implemented.

Bush, on the other hand, is an incompetent administrator who isn't governed by policy. Unlike Hoover, he didn't hold back in New Orleans or Mississippi because it was part of an overall strategy--he was stymied from effective action by his own incompetence and the incompetence of the people he put in charge of his administration! It's only ex-post-facto that his apologists are finding a way to transform his incompetence into a policy decision (states' primacy, or bootstrapping or whatever).

Personally, I'd rather have Hoover in office than Bush. At least with Hoover, there's hope could be reasoned with and convinced to change his policy approach (he started to do it at the end of his presidency). With Bush, though, there's no hope. Even if Bush wants to do the right thing for the wrong reasons (save people so he can look good on TV), he's such a lazy and ineffective leader that he can't get it done!

But I totally agree that compared to Bush, Carter got a bum rap, and it's because of spin and not because of actual fact.

Posted by: theorajones | Sep 8, 2005 11:18:24 AM

Fred Jones, Carter did a lot of good stuff. Your ignorance of that is not shocking.

Posted by: TJ | Sep 8, 2005 12:14:00 PM

Carter failed utterly in his fundamental responsibility as President - to protect the United States against its foreign enemies. He responded to an act of war - the seizure of American diplomats - not with aircraft carriers and cruise missiles but with yellow ribbons and hand wringing. By turning the other cheek he may have saved the lives of the hostages but at a huge cost, namely, 30 years of ever-escalating Islamic jihadism culminating in 9/11.

I believe, based on his record, that President Carter is basically a pacifist. That is why he refused to respond with militlary force to Iran's act of war against the United States (and please don't try to tell me that the failed rescue mission was a military response) and that's why he has opposed every single use of American military power since he left office. If he had come clean with the American people about his pacifism, he never would have been elected in the first place.

Posted by: DBL | Sep 8, 2005 12:18:43 PM

Although Carter has to be judged a failure, that doesn't mean he didn't do anything right. He appointed Paul Volker to the Fed. and he deregulated the airlines and trucking. I give him full credit for those acts. They don't even begin to move the scales, though, when weighed against his failure to defend the United States against its foreign enemies.

Posted by: DBL | Sep 8, 2005 12:25:22 PM

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