resident Carter is not a biography but rather a 1,000-page account of Carter’s four years in the White House by his domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat. It’s a partially successful refutation of those who saw Carter as a “weak and hapless” president. When Carter directed his gimlet eye at the federal bureaucracy, for instance, he created the Office of the Inspector General, whose recent report on the malfeasance of the Obama Justice Department has cast the Obama years in a dubious light.
The book bypasses the 1976 primaries when Carter defeated both Jerry Brown, then in his first run as governor of California, and the badly wounded Governor George Wallace, who had been confined to a wheelchair ever since he was nearly killed by an assassin in 1972. Both men excelled at mocking the authority of would-be experts. Governor Carter of Georgia, an Annapolis graduate, offered something different. He didn’t so much mock expertise as attempt to transcend it with his personal virtues, a meld of religiously devout, down-home humility and technical competence. None of these qualities came from the fetid Beltway that had incubated Watergate.
Eizenstat, a Jew from Atlanta, wasn’t actually part of Carter’s “Georgia Mafia,” but he was intensely loyal to the peanut farmer from Plains. Famed for taking detailed notes on every meeting he attended, Eizenstat supplemented them for the book with hundreds of interviews, including five with Carter himself, to create this doorstop of a book. “Far from a failed presidency,” Eizenstat writes, Carter “left behind concrete reforms and long-lasting benefits to the people of the United States as well as the international order.” Yes, but perhaps not in the manner that Eizenstat and contemporary Democrats might have hoped.
President Carter, explains Eizenstat, was the first “New Democrat.” The Democrats had long taken the South for granted, but the civil-rights successes of the 1960s allowed Richard Nixon and George Wallace to put it in play. Carter, a strong supporter of the 1964 Voting rights Act, won the presidential nomination in 1976 in part as a means of blocking the segregationist Wallace. Bill Clinton, the last Southern Democrat to win the White House, was also, not incidentally, the last New Democrat to lead the party. Both New Democrats proved disappointments to the more conservative Big Labor and to the aggressively liberal big-city left of the party.
Since the 1930s, Democrats had organized their economic policy around the requirements of Keynesian demand management. Government spending was their means to avoid economic downturns and ensure a robust economy. This approach was summarized by what was known as the Phillips curve, which described the way in which x percentage of inflation was said to bring y percentage in unemployment reduction. But by the Carter years, as business had become accustomed to the Keynesian game and oil price increases reverberated through the economy, government spending produced a heretofore unprecedented combination of stagnation and inflation known as stagflation. Stagflation ended the Keynesian era, although some Democrats still don’t know it, and left liberals economically rudderless, a condition that endures down to the present.
Carter had no choice but to be innovative. Keynesianism had been built in part on unionized labor. But in just three years, between 1974 and 1976, unions lost nearly 350,000 members. The percentage of the workforce represented by unions declined from nearly 30 to just over 23 percent between 1970 and 1980. It was more than symbolism when in 1976 Carter became the first president since FDR who did not launch his campaign at the spot of the national symbol of industrial unionization, Detroit’s Cadillac Square.
While not wholly ignoring the unions, Carter turned his attention to a new force in American life—the consumerist movement led by Ralph Nader that sought to empower a phalanx of left-wing lawyers to alter the ground rules of the free market. “What is generally not realized,” writes Eizenstat, “is how closely Carter aligned himself with Nader and his movement” of Nader’s Raiders, which at its peak encompassed 150,000 young lawyers. They were given control of virtually the entire alphabet soup that forms the administrative state. Naderites were appointed to head the OMB (Office of Management and Budget), NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), FDA (Food and Drugs Administration), CPSC (Consumer Products Safety Commission), NTA (National Telecommunications Administration), OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and FTC (Federal Trade Commission).
Strangely, for such an extended and comprehensive tome, President Carter misses one of the salient events of the late 1970s—the 1978 Democratic Party Midterm Convention (since abolished). Legislation aimed at reversing the decline in unionization by making it easier to organize unions at workplaces passed the House. But it failed in the Senate due to intense corporate opposition and Carter’s focus on a new treaty for the Panama Canal Zone. The defeat infuriated labor going into the midterm conclave. UAW President Doug Fraser spoke of big business having “chosen to wage a one-sided class war.” So while anti-business liberals were pleased with their positions of power, the Democratic Party’s traditional allies in organized labor saw themselves marginalized by both Carter’s unwillingness to support the union legislation and by his deregulation of trucking, telephony, and the airlines.
At the Memphis midterm conclave, Senator Edward Kennedy and the Democratic Socialists of America led by Michael Harrington teamed up to challenge Carter’s control of the event. When Kennedy spoke, he stole the show. He received a standing ovation for what the Nation magazine described as a “rip-roaring, stem-winder of a speech calling for national health insurance now.” In terms strikingly familiar to us today, Business Week reported that “socialism was no longer a dirty word.” Emboldened, Kennedy challenged Carter for the 1980 Democratic nomination.
Kennedy trumpeted his support for a comprehensive health-care bill. Carter, says Eizenstat, very much wanted a national system but within the constraints of what the country could afford. Kennedy, however, was by all accounts unwilling to compromise. It was something he would later regret.
Carter, explains Eizenstat, “did not like politicians” and similarly “felt uncomfortable with the normal byplay of political compromise.” His Baptist preacher’s sense of moral rectitude and engineer’s inapt sense of policymaking exactitude made him an odd man out among the glad-handers and promiscuously improvidential promoters of big-spending programs that were standard fare among big-city Democrats. In celebrating the creation of the Department of Education, he told an exuberant crowd, “This thing won’t work as well as you think it will.” He was so right—and yet it’s hard to top the tone-deafness of the remark.
The liberal lion Arthur Schlesinger Jr. had something of a point when he scorned Carter as “the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland.” There’s no doubt that Carter’s emphasis on balanced budgets and deregulation paved the way for Reagan. Carter once posed this Reaganesque question at a rally: “Do you want a government that will get the regulatory agencies’ and government agencies’ nose out of the private sector’s business and let our free-enterprise system work in the United States?”
His answer kept much of his party at home come 1980: ”Well, that’s the kind of government we’re trying to bring you in Washington.”
Esizenstat argues that the difference between Carter’s version of a free-market message and Reagan’s was tone. “Overall,” he writes, “Carter’s message was sacrifice and pain,” but “when he faced Reagan’s message of hope and optimism amid soaring inflation and interest rates, the very contrast itself was painful.” Tone matters.