Stephen F. Hayes: Obama as Carter

Roundup: Media's Take

[Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.]

IN A VERY SMART piece in today's New York Observer on Barack Obama and Jimmy Carter, Steve Kornacki writes:

In the '76 primaries, Carter's Democratic foes at first ignored his trust theme and then--when it was too late--brayed against it, warning that he'd been maddeningly vague about what he'd actually do as president. Hillary Clinton's warnings about Obama, it appears, have been just as tardy and futile.

But the '76 example tells us that criticisms that don't stick during the primary season can still work in the general election. Day after day in fall campaign, the Ford forces pounded away at the experience question and painted Carter as a political illusion, an affable-seeming politician who was terrified of expressing his opinion on any controversial topic.

This strikes me as mostly right. One quibble: I don't think Hillary Clinton's warnings about Obama have been tardy. She's been using the actions-not-words argument for months. It simply hasn't worked, in part because there are few major policy differences between the two candidates. Absent those contrasts, likeability becomes an even bigger factor than it usually is. Is anyone surprised that Hillary Clinton isn't winning a likeability contest?

It's easy to forget just how daunting the reelection prospects looked for Gerald Ford at the end of the summer. Here is how Robert Novak and Rowland Evans summed it up at the time in their widely-read newsletter:"The Republican ticket of President Gerald Ford and Sen. Bob Dole comes out of this cheerless GOP National Convention (with only 75 days until Election Day) even further behind the Democratic ticket of ex-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter and Sen. Walter Mondale than Sen. George McGovern was behind President Richard M. Nixon at this stage in 1972. Although this huge gap is bound to narrow by November 2nd, it must be pointed out that no candidate in modern memory has ever close this large a margin."

Ford lost by two percentage points--50 to 48--and probably would not have gotten that close if he had relied on the advice of experienced political professionals, many of whom believed that he had no shot. Ford's team was led by then White House chief of staff Dick Cheney, 35, and was young and relatively inexperienced. Their plan was simple: Make the race about Jimmy Carter, not Gerald Ford. On the heels of a long and controversial war, with a shaky economy, Ford's advisers wanted voters to focus on whether Carter was really ready to be president. The more they asked the question, the less certain voters became. (The one famous hiccup came when in a debate when Ford told Max Frankel of the New York Times that"there is not Soviet domination of eastern Europe, and there never will be under the Ford Administration." Ford stubbornly refused to correct this laughable assertion for days and the contrast with Carter that he hoped to demonstrate was considerably less sharp.)

McCain will have to make the race about Obama and his readiness to be president, but it won't be enough for McCain to suggest this by assailing his hopeful rhetoric and hinting that he's a lightweight. Hillary Clinton has done that for months and she is on the verge of losing. McCain's advantage is that he can offer major policy differences that Hillary Clinton could not. Even on health care, which has taken up an inordinate about of time in their one-on-one debates, the differences are relatively minor. (If Obama's plan is marginally more market-friendly, it's because he wants to make it more politically acceptable. He has repeatedly said that he wants to end up with a government-run health care system not unlike hers.)

So if Obama is Carter, McCain has a pretty good chance. But here's another comparison to think about, Obama as Reagan.

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