The recent death of George H.W Bush made me reflect on the now-oldest living president, Jimmy Carter. The 39th president, as a president, is not held in high regard by nearly anyone; the GOP remembers him as a weakling who ranted about “malaise” en route to getting routed by Ronald Reagan in 1980, while today’s Democrats see him as either a weirdly conservative holdover of the pre-LBJ Democratic Party or the first “neoliberal” president.
Carter is a political orphan, and almost everything about his rise to power and time in office are strange in retrospect. First, consider the electoral map of the 1976 election:
No Democrat before or since has won with this weird coalition of states. Carter traded big states in the Northeast and Midwest with Ford, winning Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York but losing Illinois, Michigan, and New Jersey. Shut out in the West except for Hawaii, he held on by sweeping the old Solid South except for Virginia. He remains the last Democratic presidential nominee to win Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, or South Carolina.
Carter’s relatively narrow victory stemmed from the lingering stench of Watergate that followed Ford, as well as Carter’s innovative stance as an outsider, a Southern governor who could clean up Washington. Before Carter, the most recent governor to ascend to the presidency was FDR, and the three most recent presidents had been consummate insiders with decades-long careers in federal politics. After Carter, three of the next four presidents were governors who ran as outsiders. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush benefited immensely from the evangelical vote that Carter, perhaps the last sincere Christian to hold the office, activated; Bush 43 in particular won two narrow Carter-esque victories thanks to incredible strength throughout the South.
As a president, Carter was remarkably blunt. His famous cardigan address, delivered by a fireplace, includes him smirking dismissively at people who doubted his view that America needed to get better at energy conservation. His crisis of confidence speech is a bit of truth-telling that no president had since even tried to replicate. People praise Donald Trump for “telling it like it is,” which he doesn’t, but Carter really did and was crucified for it. Pundits and politicians still act like they idolize Carterist bluntness, but they only like the idea of it and would never take the risks Carter himself did when discussing energy or public policy solo on national tv.
Carter entered office at the apex of the Democratic Party’s post watergate dominance. However, he struggled to govern, famously pissing off Ted Kennedy with his austere inauguration party and clashing with progressives who pushed legislation like Humphrey-Hawkins, a bill that would have guaranteed employment to every American adult.
His few accomplishments were nevertheless notable. He deregulated airlines, trucking, and railroads, the consequences of which we are still living with (this is what leftist critics refer to when they call Carter a neoliberal shill), since Reagan and every subsequent president took a similar approach to industry. He appointed Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, who jacked up interest rates, hurting workers and winning the admiration of Ronald Reagan, who retained him in the 1980s. The New Deal era ended during the Carter presidency.
In foreign policy, he established the Carter Doctrine, which set the table for decades of US intervention in the Middle East, especially under the presidents Bush. He ramped up military spending to pressure the USSR, after attacking Ford from the right in 1976 for his “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” gaffe during a debate. Military spending has been spiraling upward ever since.
Carter’s bluntness, political limitations, and challenges with issues in the world at large (e.g., the energy crisis) doomed his re-election prospects. But his influence lives on, as every president since, with the slight exception of Obama, has taken a similar approach to military aggression abroad and deregulatory policy at home. The incoherence of the Trump presidency may finally signal the beginning of the end for the current era of presidential politics that began in the late 1970s, but until a progressive Democrat takes office and takes the country on a distinctly different course the contours of the Carter era are still with us.
He had run for president before, but had found only a limited constituency. On his second try, he lost in Iowa and looked like he might struggle to live up to the hype, before rebounding in New Hampshire and then winning almost every contest en route to the nomination. Despite this dominance, his electoral prospects looked shaky, with polls showing a regular deficit to his Democratic challenger, a distant but effective political operator whose every misstep incited wall-to-wall media coverage. But after a successful convention, he caught up and won with a surprisingly large margin in the Electoral College. In office, he nominated to the US Supreme Court a credibly accused sexual harasser, who narrowly won confirmation. He cultivated close relations with the totalitarian regime in Saudi Arabia despite its undeniable contributions to the destabilization of the Middle East. Partially exposed to a blockbuster White House scandal involving illegal collusion with a foreign power, he wielded the presidential parody power aggressively to let multiple coconspirators off the hook. I’m talking, of course, about George H.W. Bush.
The narrative attending the death of George H.W. Bush (hereafter “Bush 41”) is predictable – he ruled a Kindler Gentler America, as a Moderate Sensible Republican who adhered to The Norms. It’s all bullshit.
Always, always be skeptical of any framing, especially a political one, of the past as a safer place. For example, I find myself doing this sometimes about the late 2000s and early 2010s only to recall that same-sex marriage was illegal throughout the period. The Trump presidency has made countless pundits think that every moment up until Jan. 20, 2017 was a golden age of civility and political stability, with the Bush dynasty a pivotal part of the old guard.
As my opening paragraph shows, Bush 41 governed in many ways like a more polite Donald Trump, and the similarities between go further, to him being credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple women. I mean, his last ever tweet was a note of congratulations to Maine senator Susan Collins on her decisive vote to confirm sexual harasser Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Much will be made of Bush 41 signing into law various bills such as the Americans With Disabilities Act and important updates to environmental and civil rights laws. Left out of those discussions will be any acknowledgment of the majorities Democrats held in both houses of Congress for the entirety of Bush’s term, and how Democratic representatives and senators masterminded these initiatives and would have overridden a veto.
If you want to celebrate the Bush 41 years, presaged by a hateful campaign filled with race-baiting proto-Trump ads like the infamous “Willie Horton” spot (created in part by the man who would go on to found a little PAC called Citizens United), best to stick to foreign policy, where he oversaw a relatively graceful end to the Cold War. That’s it (oh and his nomination of David Souter, who turned out to be a secret liberal).
I’ve already seen political scientists talk about how Bush 41 was the best president of their lifetimes, which seems like respect for the recently deceased more than anything. To me, he did far less to benefit the average American than Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. I will grant that he was much better than his idiotic son or the GOP’s cartoonishly criminal Nixon and Trump administrations, and superior even to his more lionized predecessor. He’s the best elected GOP president of the past 50 years, but the bar is ridiculously low.