You have to admit it takes guts. Audacity, even.
Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive nominee of the Democrats, has in essence just defeated the heiress of the Clinton era by campaigning as the heir-apparent of the Carter era.
The question for the rest of the year is this: Are there enough voting Americans who survived the disastrous odyssey through the late 1970s that was led by blessedly now ex-president Jimmy Carter? While Ronald Reagan is rated in poll after poll by Americans as a great president, (most recently he rated second only to Lincoln), are there enough people who recall that Reagan’s election came about because of Carter’s…ahhh…”performance” in the Oval Office? And will they be able to make the Obama-Carter connection for younger voters hearing terms like “windfall profits tax” for the first time? More to the point, can Senator John McCain do this?
The greatest charade of the year thus far is the idea that something “new” is being said in this campaign. By anybody. To be bluntly accurate, the only thing new is that one of the final two candidates is black. It seems to escape some that in a country even as young as America, 55 presidential elections (2008 is the 56th) covers just about all the ground there is to cover in debating any given next four years in the life of the United States. Consider.
Since the 1788 election that produced (unopposed) George Washington as the first president, the agenda for presidential elections has been narrowed to one underlying issue: the role of government. Understood in that fashion, the following 220 years of American history can be read as if with Superman’s X-ray vision. From slavery to abortion, the War of 1812 to the War in Iraq, from Lincoln’s support for “internal improvements” to John McCain’s disdain for congressional earmarks, the question at issue was the role of government. Whether dealing with the isolationism of Washington or Robert Taft or Ron Paul instead of the internationalism of Jefferson’s chase after the Barbary pirates, Wilson’s League of Nations or Ronald Reagan’s determination to win the Cold War, the underlying question every time was the role of government.
This can be expressed in terms of its size (big or small), of its engagement with the world (the kind and quality of diplomacy) and its ability to protect American citizens (do we do it here or over there?). Yet always the issue is exactly the same. It is the underlying skeleton and vital organs of every question of policy facing the American people.
So too is it more than safe to say that America has seen every kind of candidate there is to be had in these 55 elections. Only the packaging is different in number 56, a truism of every previous election. Black this time for Obama, female for Hillary, there was Catholic for JFK. Short for Martin Van Buren, tall, skinny and hot tempered for Andrew Jackson. A failed haberdasher in Truman, a glossy movie actor in Reagan, a joke-cracking railroad lawyer in Lincoln and a school teacher in LBJ. A peanut farmer with Carter. Yet what each was saying both as candidate and president fell along one side or the other of the role of government argument. And as the string of American presidents and presidential campaigns gets longer, the newest candidates and the latest president have taken to looking backwards to select the presidential policies of admired predecessors
Which makes the audacity of the Obama campaign more than amusing — and amazing — to watch. Consciously or not, Obama has selected the philosophical template of the Carter administration, from defunding the military, fighting the “special interests” down to imposing the windfall profits tax on the rich. Well, as Justice Clarence Thomas might say: whoop-dee-damn-do! This is precisely the philosophy of Jimmy Carter, although Carter had the good sense not to campaign as the pacifist he really is in 1976, waiting until the moment his hand came off the bible for that.
IS IT POSSIBLE that America really wants to return to those depressing days of gas lines and leisure suits? Of malaise and shock over the aggressiveness of America’s enemies? The days when the policies Obama is advocating raised unemployment rates, interest rates and inflation rates into the double digits? When America’s enemies looked the President of the United States in the eye — and found he really wanted to kiss them on the cheek?
After all of those 55 previous elections for president, with policy results seriously on record from George Washington to George W. Bush, it doesn’t take much now to understand what doesn’t work. The policy failures, not only of American presidents but world leaders in general, are all right out there to be seen.
Obama’s windfall profits tax idea? A Jimmy Carter biggie. “Unless we tax the oil companies, they will reap huge and undeserved windfall profits,” fumed Carter on national television in 1980. The New York Times agreed, warning darkly that “legislators who sit by idly while oil profits soar will have to answer to the voters.” With Democrats controlling Congress they got their way. As if on cue, oil production — fell. To the tune of 1.6 billion fewer barrels. America’s dependence on foreign oil rose. Eventually even the Times was agreeing the tax had to be repealed, and by 1988 Reagan, who campaigned against it, signed the repeal (by a Democrat Congress no less) into law. And Obama wants to do this all over again? Yes. It’s not only not a new idea, it’s not a better idea. Yet in terms of Obama, most tellingly it was a Carter idea.
Another Carter favorite was to appear to attack the wealthy, going after “rich businessmen” who enjoyed themselves with the “$50 martini lunch.” Elected, Carter went after the martini business lunch tax deduction all right, but then quickly turned on the middle class with a Social Security payroll tax. Obama is already well on board with Carteresque rhetoric about “tax cuts for the wealthy.” What taxes will a President Obama raise that, as with Carter, can’t be discussed as a candidate?
Appeasement and the notion that we can look evil in the eye and smile? Another Carter favorite (captured forever with the image of the American president kissing Brezhnev on the cheek at a Moscow summit in 1979) that more famously was the notion underpinning British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s desperate face-to-face sitdowns with Adolph Hitler. Didn’t work either time, nor will it ever work as Obama seems to be seriously proposing with Iran. Why? Because bullies are bullies — be they Russian Communists, German dictators or Iranian mullahs. Senator John McCain succinctly sums up Obama’s take as a lack of both judgment and experience, which surely is true.
BUT OBAMA’S VIEWS are also something else. They are the product of a world view that has been around for centuries — failing every time it’s tried. Obama’s campaign website says Obama “will take several steps down the long road toward eliminating nuclear weapons. He will stop the development of new nuclear weapons; work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair trigger alert; seek dramatic reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material; and set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate- range missiles so that the agreement is global.” He also pledges to stop the research and deployment of a missile defense, the same system that Reagan created to end the Cold War.
America was led down this philosophical garden path most recently by Carter. Whether advocated by Carter in 1979, Chamberlain in 1939 or a President Obama in 2009, the philosophy behind this idea has simply never worked. Period. Yet , to borrow from Reagan’s line in his debate with Carter, here we go again.
With all of the sweep of American history to look back on, with virtual libraries of history recording what works and what doesn’t when running the American government, Obama has stunningly selected the Carter policies as his role model.
Tax cuts? Not for Obama. Military superiority? No, not for Obama. Do tax cuts work? Yes, as shown by Presidents Coolidge, Kennedy, Reagan and Bush 43. Military strength? Yes, decisively too. From Lincoln’s Union Army to Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet and his maxim to “talk softly and carry a big stick,” from Wilson’s Allied Expeditionary Force to FDR’s vow to victory “so help us God” to Ronald Reagan’s peace through strength, the idea of overwhelming military superiority works — if the enemy believes you will use it. Or you actually use it.
But Obama, as with Carter, is having none of these approaches. From hiking Social Security payroll taxes to investing 20 percent less in defense budgets to telling Americans they had an “inordinate” fear of Communism, step by step Carter’s policy selections and his decisions on the role of government led the American people down a dark and dangerous path that produced the worst economy since the Great Depression along with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and a beachhead in Central America with the Communist take-over of Nicaragua. When his policy towards Iran resulted in abandoning the Shah in favor of the extremist mullahs and the taking of American hostages, Carter’s military was in such bad shape that American soldiers died in the Iranian desert during a miserably failed rescue attempt.
PERHAPS MORE ASTONISHING than his advocacy of a return to Carterism, Obama channels the Republican president to whom Carter was frequently compared — Herbert Hoover. Obama is completely on board with protectionism, seemingly oblivious to the lessons of the Smoot-Hawley tariff that was a product of the Hoover administration in 1930. Upping the tariff on some 20,000 goods it is famous forever as the disastrous idea that deepened the severity of the Great Depression.
One has to wonder about the survival prospects down the road for the Democrats. They either can’t get elected because their ideas are so bad — extremist or tried and true failures — or every once in a good while the latest crowd of American voters actually forgets their history (or never learned it in the first place) and gives a Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton a go at holding the reins. Enemies are then appeased, taxes raised, and judges go wild — which in turn creates a new generation of conservatives who begin to understand why the last generation voted Republican.
The question for Senator McCain, accused by Obama of wanting to serve George W. Bush’s third term, is whether he will hold Obama’s feet to the fire on Obama’s apparently passionate desire to serve Jimmy Carter’s second.