Jimmah, Mittens, Obama, and bin Laden

Why did Jimmy Carter stick a shiv in the Obama campaign?
Because that’s who he is: treacherous to his friends, helpful to his enemies.
And why did Romney respond by insulting Carter?
Because doing so involved lying, and Romney’s addicted to lying.

Of all my political mistakes, helping Jimmy Carter get elected in 1976 has to have been the worst (so far). In four years, he managed to blow what should have been the indestructible partisan edge the Democrats inherited from Watergate. No Carter, no Reagan. And he did it while compiling a very limited record of legislative achievement, and in particular while missing what in retrospect was the last clear shot at serious campaign-finance reform.

I shouldn’t have been under any illusions; after all, I was there when he toured Capitol Hill that winter, greeting the male staffers with “Hello, I’m Governor Carter, and I’m running for President” and the female staffers with “Hello, little lady! I’m Jimmah Carter, and I’m going to be your next President!” I’ve never been able to quite get clear on what stands out the most: Carter’s cognitive limits, his utter unawareness of those limits (characterized by his belief that an undergraduate engineering degree made him a “scientist”), his political selfishness and absence of team spirit, or his sheer oleaginous self-righteousness.

All of these were on display when Carter decided to undercut this year’s entire Democratic campaign theme by endorsing the stupid “Romney-is-a-moderate” idea. No surprise there, really. That’s our Jimmah: eliably treacherous to his friends and helpful to his enemies.

It’s perhaps slightly more surprising that Mitt Romney should have responded to this piece of generosity on Carter’s part by insulting Carter. Trying to back away from his earlier statements that it wasn’t worth spending a lot of money to get one man and that going into Pakistani territory to go after terrorists would be wrong, Romney said on the anniversary of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, “Of course, even Jimmy Carter would have given that order.”

The only reason I can think of for Romney to say what he said is that the statement, as he made it, is obviously false, and Romney is addicted to lying. We know what Jimmy Carter would have done, because we know what he actually did do, under parallel circumstances: allow himself to be talked into going in without enough resources, risking having to scrub the mission if three out of eight helicopters failed (compared to a predicted two out of eight). Obama, by contrast, personally insisted on what turned out to be the essential extra chopper going into Abbotabad.

Moreover, of course, while making the final call was indeed dramatic, the key moves that Obama took – and Bush didn’t take – involved putting in motion the machinery that got us to the place where the final call was there to be made. Obama got bin Laden because Obama wanted to get bin Laden. There’s no evidence on the record that any of the Republicans – Bush, McCain, or Romney – shared that desire.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

34 thoughts on “Jimmah, Mittens, Obama, and bin Laden”

  1. Yeah, I held my nose and voted for Jerry Ford in 1976. To me, Carter was merely a smiling peanut farmer who was a bit smarter than most around him, but now an effective politico. The Dems would have been better suited to nominate Mo Udall that year. But alas, they didn’t and we’ve had a tough time of it ever since!

    1. It likely wasn’t a terribly important factor in Udall’s loss, but the still-lamented Molly Ivins has a great essay (in part) about how as an ambitious young reporter she got a (freelance?) assignment from The New York Times Magazine: a long-form profile of Mo Udall, introducing him to a New York and a national audience relatively unfamiliar with him, part of a series of feature articles the Magazine was doing about the people seeking the nomination. Ivins took it to be a chance to show off her ability to be a hard-bitten, take-no-prisoners, cynical, and demanding Big-City Reporter, and bent over backwards and further than that to expose every hint of a flaw or a failing in Udall. And the next week out came the analogous feature article on Jimmy Carter, written by Times legend R W (“Johnny”) Apple, a complete love note to the candidate by a writer who’d apparently completely adopted the desired campaign narrative. She wrote the essay decades later (perhaps in a memorial to Udall?), still feeling she’d been betrayed by the Magazine and had as a result betrayed Udall.

  2. Yes, an alternative history where Stewart Udall’s moral object to borrowing money didn’t prevent his brother Mo from winning the Michigan primary would be a much happier document than the actual history of that period.

  3. I understand your frustration with Carter. But who else, other than Mo, would have been good? It was kinda of a crazy primary election, from what I can tell, with some not-so-enduring competition, such as Wallace.

    Also, I am not sure any of the other candidates would have been much better on economic management. Most importantly, would any of them fought inflation harder than Carter did, who admittedly was ham-handed in first appointing Miller, who let inflation spur to high levels?

    You could make the argument that all of Carter’s faults, it was his lack of economic management that was key to his downfall. And his lack of legislative accomplishments, while real, could be laid at the feet of conservative Dems in Congress. The same could be said of Obama, who could have gotten a lot more done without “Lieberdem” and other conservative Dem interference…


    1. My impression (I was pretty young then) was that it was actually the liberal Dems who sabotaged Carter. They were outraged that Carter’s election did not lead to the resumption of the LBJ domestic program, and they spent his term biding their time until Teddy could return the White House to its rightful owners, ie the Kennedy clan, in 1980. I think Carter proposed a health reform that had pretty strong support from moderate Dems and Republicans, and that would have been well to the left of Obamacare, but Teddy sank it – thinking he would get his own, more interventionist program passed easily after he inevitably won.

      Looking back, of course, it’s astonishing that so many Democrats – including most or all of the party’s de facto establishment – supported a primary challenge to their own incumbent president in 1980, but that was the tenor of the times. And I think there are more than a few parallels between the arrogant, self-aggrandizing, non-compromising and ultimately self-sabotaging liberal Democrats of the late 1970s and the conservative Republicans of today, or at least maybe that’s my hope.

      1. I still remember a huge photo covering several columns on the front page of the newspaper showing Carter awkwardly trying to kiss Jackie O at an event – might have been the 15th anniversary of Dallas? – and Jackie awkardly not letting him do so. Because he was, of course, the outsider, the betrayer of the liberal tradition, certainly not fit to show affection to its dowager queen-in-exile. That one image kind of encapsulated Carter’s haplessness, the liberal Democratic establishment’s rejection of him, and the foolishness of the whole situation.

        1. You can almost understand Teddy thinking Carter was so damaged that he had to be replaced and that Teddy could beat Reagan. Who knows, maybe that’s right. But Teddy’s refusal to help Carter at the convention and later is a big black mark to his political reputation.

  4. Mark’s attack on Jimmy Carter was tough but fair. It could have gone further–he was the intellectual grandfather of today’s Wall Street Democrats. He–not Reagan–was the first great deregulator.

    But I’m posting to defend him. His record was mixed. I would consider him the most successful foreign policy President we’ve had since Truman, Iran notwithstanding. He played the human rights shtick brilliantly, if perhaps not cynically. This paid enormous dividends with the Soviet Union (props to Jerry Ford for Helsinki), Latin America, and the general American post-Vietnam image. He raised America’s power and influence at a time when American military might was in tatters. He went far toward restoring US military might as well. One of the Reagan administration’s favorite political tropes, when confronted with accusations of an excessive military buildup, was pointing out that the Reagan budgets were below the projections of the Carter budgets. Oh, yeah. And Camp David.

    Domestically, not so much, although he deserves credit for having the guts to hire Paul Volcker. Carter was not a very cynical man, but he was not a naif. He knew what Volcker would do to his reelection prospects, and hired him anyway.

    And finally, there is Carter’s magnificent record as an ex-president to consider. Mark’s portrait of Carter is not unfair, but is only a partial one.

    1. A bit before my time, but domestically he ended price controls for gasoline while putting a windfall profits tax on oil, two big steps to reduce car dependence (esp. the first). He stopped the era of dam-building which has helped slow down sprawl in the West. He saved much of Alaska from development and IIRC made good use of the Wilderness Act and National Monuments in the lower 48.

      Dereg of airlines was a good idea, more or less. Financial dereg isn’t his fault. I’m less sure but first steps toward telecom dereg might also have happened in his time.

    2. “He went far toward restoring US military might as well.”

      Yeah, because without the Carter military buildup, the Soviets would have taken over the West.


    3. Oddly, you don’t mention what I would say was one of his two unalloyed foreign-policy success (a category I’d exclude your nominees from, except of course for Camp David): ending our colonization of Panama. You barely mention Iran, where his vaunted Human Rights principles (the ones you claim he uncynically stuck to) failed to stop him from backing the Shah to the end, with terrible consequences. And you don’t mention Afghanistan, where the insurgency he backed is having terrible repercussions to this day. And it’s clear from his travels and actions in the decades since his Presidency that while he is genuinely well-meaning he is desperately naive about the ability of an open hand and a cheesy grin to transform brutal dictatorships.

      RE the military buildup, it is as you say unfair to Carter that he gets called a peacenik by people who adore Reagan for the military buildup, because Carter is at least as responsible, all the Republican propaganda notwithstanding. But then it’s still more unfair to the country that we paid through the nose for an absurd and useless military buildup …

      1. Goods points, Warren. I should have mentioned Panama. I think that Afghanistan was a plus (in context of its time). It broke the credibility of the Soviet empire, far more than Vietnam broke the credibility of the US empire. This was in our interest in 1979, and in the world’s interest as well, IMO.

        We disagree on US military might, but I think that this is probably because we view US imperialism differently. You’re probably dead against it; hence inherently opposed to military capabilities in that direction. I’m ambivalent. You should probably give me some credit for calling it “imperialism”, but I can see why you think I’m wrong to be so kind to it as to ambivalate.

        Our greater disagreement is on the significance of Carter’s human rights campaign. I think that it, as much as Afghanistan, broke the back of the Soviet empire and many colonels elsewhere. You probably view it as pious bullshit, all the more dangerous because Carter believed in it.

        1. I’m ambivalent about US imperialism, or at least less absolute in my criticism than many people to the left of me, but – Vietnam aside – the excesses of post-WWII US imperialism have never depended on an eighth, ninth, or now eleventh nuclear aircraft carrier. Typically it’s been rifles, helicopters, money, and training, with the occasional commando team thrown in. The signature elements of the buildup Carter and Reagan implemented were in capital ships, tanks, and nuclear missiles, none of which were very important in the villages of Guatemala.

          American imperialism has had its bright spots as well, depending on what you mean by “imperialism”. Certainly we’ve spread our higher ideals and our excellent opportunities in higher education, and not only our bullets and napalm. But even here Carter is not a bright spot. One of the places most heavily occupied by the US military is South Korea, and Carter did nothing to promote human rights or Democracy there, even when turmoil in 1979 offered a real opening. I wasn’t around (or at least, not usefully aware) during Carter’s Presidency, but I’m not aware that his emphasis on Human Rights had any material consequence: in Iran, South Korea, and other places Carter’s administration seems to have talked a lot about Human Rights while remaining firmly in bed with a lot of monsters, even when given the opportunity to change course.

          I don’t know what the options were in Afghanistan. I do know that the world has paid a terrible price for ongoing strife there, and Hekmatyar is a monster of our creation. Maybe Afghanistan was always intolerant of foreigners; riven by regional, confessional, and ethnic divisions; and highly militarized, and this outcome was inevitable – though I thought I’d read the country was reasonably unified for a time before 1979. Maybe the Saudis would have richly funded a holy war in Afghanistan without our meddling. But even by your accounting the goal of our endeavor was to destroy the USSR without a thought to those caught up in our schemes, by means of an insurgency that would likely destroy Afghanistan, and that did so. I’d agree that the plan succeeded, but that didn’t make it moral. And while the subsequent abandonment of our Afghan clients occurred long after Carter left office, I don’t recall him making any noise about it – nor was his military aid apparently accompanied by any efforts to build civilian institutions. We sent a lot of guns and missiles to the refugee camps of Pakistan; did we send textbooks? doctors? teachers? And who were the Pakistani partners of the supposedly noncynical Jimmy Carter? Who were the Saudi partners?

          I actually like and respect a lot of things about Carter. He was farsighted in his calls for alternative fuels and energy efficiency (although, typically for him, he generated no meaningful legislation on the subject). It bothers me immensely that Caster is frequently criticized for things that aren’t true, indeed that are the opposite of the truth (claims he shrunk the military, claims he increased regulation). But I think his was a failed Presidency for a great many reasons, and worse that a lot of its claimed strengths – like his asserted firm support for Human Rights – were self-congratulatory pietistic mouthings, noble sentiments that were failed every time he had a chance to make any effort or pay the slightest price to back them up.

          And while Carter’s post-Presidential career has been tremendous with respect to infectious disease, and good with respect to evangelizing elections, his typically lazy and self-congratulatory approach to international diplomacy has typically been of no use to anything other than making him feel good about himself.

      2. I do have to quibble about backing the Shah to the end. It was *almost* to the end, because iirc he finally refused to let him stay in the US. He was here for cancer surgery, I believe, but when he was looking to go into exile he was turned down and forced to go shopping very publicly for a place to park. Trudeau caught this right at the end in one of those four-panel Doonesbury strips that showed the White House in perspective with a mailbox in the foreground; on the mailbox was written successively “the” “shah” “what” “shah”.

        That reversal was a moment of weakness and another element in the gooper folklore that makes him a symbol and incarnation of weakness. Wrongly in many respects, as many are noting, but Romney’s invocation tells us what an inside-the-party byword his name has been. Even then they had the princes of the media eating out of their hands. Had the rescue mission worked, or had there not been a second oil price jump, the world might be a different place now. I do have to agree that Afghanistan was a disaster, though. And in a minor way it might even have given cover to Reagan’s little wars.

  5. What is facinating about Romney’s comment is that it comes from (panders to?) the idea that any 70’s Democrat must be some kind of hippy peacenik; Carter had been a Naval Academy grad and a submariner (maybe some of Rickover’s personality rubbed off?).

    1. Even a passing familiarity with Rickover’s biography and Carter’s tenure should dispose of that possibility. One can say nice things about both of them but peas in a pod, they weren’t.

    2. Standard right-wing technique – attack others for what you’ve done yourself.

  6. You say “endorsing the stupid Romney-is-a-moderate idea.”

    I think it’s more accurate to say “Romney WAS a moderate”, at least in an earlier incarnation of his personality. And of course, for so many of us that’s the problem: Romney cycles through various convictions and beliefs like most of us cycle through socks. As Jennifer Granholm said, he’s a hollow man.

    To me, he has always seemed like a laboratory-created hybrid of Ward Cleaver, Gordon Gekko, and the Winkelvoss twins.

    1. He may once have been a moderate and/or had moderate instincts. But remember the story they tell about Gordon Liddy? That he approached the campaign people with grandiose multi-million-dollar plans for sabotaging and ratfucking the Democratic campaigns and was told “here’s half a million, now go away and leave us alone”? Well, in today’s climate, with today’s GOP, that kind of response would be absolutely the best anyone could possibly hope for if a president Romney were to be approached by any certifiably insane neo-fascist, Randian, or plutocratic idea. He would have absolutely no room to exercise any of his supposed “moderate” instincts, assuming he had them.

      Brad Delong, or maybe Atrios, or maybe Krugman, was right several years ago when he made it his mantra: There is no such thing as a moderate republican. Whoever it was, he was talking about the likes of Specter, but it’s even more true today. The party will own and drive any president bearing its label the way it owns and drives John Boehner, who it has made probably the weakest and most ineffectual speaker in modern memory.

  7. Whatever one thinks of Carter this was just a nasty comment by Romney about someone largely irrelevant to the campaign. I guess he was trying to distract attention from his own previous position on Bin Laden by taking a cheap shot at a reliable, to Republicans, villain.

    1. Hey, I’m old, not ancient, I barely recall Carter.

      “Killer rabbit”, blah blah blah. Happy?

  8. Carter was saying something probably empirically accurate, that Romney, deep in his heart, is a moderate. I’m an Obama Democrat, and I believe that too. Romney also is an oleaginous panderer who has permitted himself to drift pretty far to the right for expedience, and as president would almost certainly be a doormat for the Republicans on the Hill. The Carter statement isn’t a big deal.

    My favorite Carter moment came when he visited the premier of South Korea — Carter’s human rights-based foreign policy didn’t really work very well in South Korea, his understandable disgust with the military dictatorship in place had the unfortunate effect of maltreating a pretty loyal ally who had undergone a lot of hardship in the name of our alliance. Reagan’s more unconditional support of SK made more sense in a Cold War context and arguably did more to bring about democracy there. I’m not a Reagan supporter but the facts are on his side on this one.

    In any case, this is documented fact: when Carter was visiting South Korea, the meetings didn’t go very well and it was all very tense and so forth. In the limo on the way back, Carter decided to try to convert the South Korean premier (name escapes me right now) to Christianity, to the understandable bafflement and consternation of the premier. Yes, that’s right: Carter actually asked a non-Christian head of state of a U.S. ally if he had considered looking into Jesus Christ for his personal salvation (or some such). Ridiculous.

    1. “on the way back” = “on the way to the airport to fly home” — Carter was not driven to the US from South Korea.

    2. Nice point, and a strong indictment of Carter. At his age–to believe that the contents of a man’s heart has some significance independent of his acts! He’s a devout Christian, but maybe not a very sophisticated one.

  9. I think Jimmy Carter will be remembered as the President who put solar panels on the White House roof, and committed to weaning the US off Middle Eastern oil.

    Ronald Reagan will be remembered as the President who ditched the solar panels, re-committed the US to his Big Oil backers, and set the country on the course of actual military intervention in the Middle East. The President who squandered an opportunity to advance alternative energy in time for the significant rises in global temperature that began just as he took office.

    1. Unless Republicans re-take the Presidency and the Senate, in which case Reagan will be the fifth head chiseled into Mt. Rushmore. His deification started in the late 1980s and is nearly complete.

  10. Jimmy Carter’s biggest problem was that he ran as a Washington outsider and never figured out how to work the inside game once he was in office. Reagan did a much better job of that.

    1. It’s infinitely easier for an outsider to fit in, if the outsider’s goal is to aid the elites in getting what they want.

      1. Actually, it was more about stuff like Carter not going along with water projects that Democrats in the House wanted for their districts, which pissed them off. Tip O’Neill never had much love for Carter’s White House staff either and he was absolutely furious when Carter conceded early to Reagan before the polls were closed in California.

  11. There’s a certain parallel between Carter and Obama, because Obama’s legacy depends on him getting re-elected in order to keep Obamacare and action on climate change in place. Had Carter been re-elected, some version of his renewable energy program would’ve survived, and maybe he could’ve helped Gorbachev manage a smoother transition rather than waiting like Reagan did until 1987 before realizing that something real was happening in the USSR.

    So Carter’s main failure was in the things he did that kept him from being re-elected against a weak Republican candidate.

  12. OTOH, if your agenda is disastrous, not getting reelected may be the only thing that saves you from being universally reviled. From that perspective, being a one term President may have rescued Carter. He entered office with a “misery index of 12.7, and left with one of 19.7. Leaving 4 years later with an index of 26.7 wouldn’t have caused him to be fondly remembered.

    The same thing may yet rescue Obama.

Comments are closed.