Ramesh Ponnuru: In Carter's Shadow





[Ramesh Ponnuru is a Washington, D.C. based Indian American columnist and a senior editor for National Review magazine.]

The ghost of Jimmy Carter is haunting the 2008 campaign. Well, let me restate that: the ghost of his presidency haunts the 2008 campaign. As for Carter, he certainly has not passed on; he is an active freelance diplomat and campaign consultant. In recent days he has told Hillary Clinton to "give it up" in June and estimated the size of Israel's nuclear stockpile. (Other previous Presidents have kept tactfully silent about its very existence.) Earlier, both John McCain and Barack Obama had felt compelled to denounce Carter's meeting with representatives of Hamas.

Carter's almost predictable intrusions into the news have done little to sway events, but they have conjured memories of a past that the current President and his two would-be successors are trying not to repeat.
Start with President George W. Bush, whose deep unpopularity has set the tone for the campaign. In the late 1970s, the public came to regard Carter as a failed President, and his failure colored attitudes toward his party for more than a decade. Republicans tied Democrat after Democrat to the stagflation and foreign policy weakness of that era. Now Republicans worry that perceptions of Bush are going to hurt them for a generation.

Voters who came of age in the 1980s were strongly Republican, thinking Ronald Reagan had brought America back. By contrast, young people today identify themselves as strongly Democratic. They disapprove of Bush and the Iraq war in large percentages, worry about their economic futures and have started paying attention to politics at a time when Republicans have often been making the news for incompetence and scandal.

Bush probably thought he had avoided going down as a failure when he won a second term, which had eluded Carter (and Bush's father). But the only sure way for him to escape that fate is for a Republican to win the presidency this year. Reagan would have seemed a less transformative figure if Michael Dukakis had succeeded him, and Bill Clinton would have had a deeper impact on his party and the country if Al Gore had won in 2000. Whatever their past differences, Bush has ample reason to root for McCain now.

Of the two likely nominees this year, Obama is closest to Carter in background and policy leanings. The parallels between his campaign so far and the one Carter ran in 1976 are striking. Like Carter, Obama had little national experience when he started to run. Neither was given much chance of winning the nomination. Instead of running on a detailed platform, Carter told crowds that what Washington needed was "a government as good as its people"—just as Obama promises "change we can believe in." Carter's message sold well after Richard Nixon's disgrace, and press accounts from the time suggest that people found the born-again Carter to be charismatic. That parallel is a promising one for Obama.

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