What liberals want from government includes what everybody else wants—security, prosperity, personal freedom, honest and efficient governance. But liberals also want more—an active remaking of society along more equitable lines, and promotion of humane values in the world. In making political judgments, it is often hard to resolve these goals. But judging Jimmy Carter is not hard. In four years as president, he has failed by both the general standards of competent administration and the special standards of the liberal agenda. He has made our society less prosperous without making it more generous. He has made this country less respected and feared abroad without making it more loved. Now Carter asks liberals to support him for reelection. We say no.
It is one thing to swallow doubts and support the Democratic candidate when he is a blur making amiable noises and there is the possibility of pleasant surprise. That is what many voters—and this journal— did supporting Jimmy Carter in 1976. But when that has confirmed all those doubts, to vote for him a second time is an act of political decadence. It is a ratification of failure that betrays both liberal principles and the principle of accountability. It is a message as liberals to the rest of the political community that the damage done under our banner has our blessing. More urgently, it is a message from us as to those who would rule over us that we can be taken in by words and gesture; that we won’t measure a politician’s record against objective standards or his own promises.
This journal has a long history of refusing to settle. In 1968 we declined to endorse Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon because of Vietnam. Sometimes to settle is a triumph of emotion over reason, similarities between 1968 and 1980 are not compelling. First, Hubert Humphrey was the leading liberal of his day, with one tragic flaw, Vietnam. Jimmy Carter was an unknown quantity when he usurped the liberal banner, and now has proven his unworthiness to carry it. Second, Ronald Reagan is not Richard Nixon. Third, this year we do not advocate sitting on our hands. We can say no to Carter and Reagan, and yes to an articulated set of liberal views that don’t carry the stigma of failure and betrayal. We endorse John Anderson.
President Carter lost us for good in the summer of 1979, when he tried to levitate the country from Camp David. That was when we became convinced that this is a man without a clue about how to govern, and without a scruple about what he will do to camouflage this fact. Do you remember? There were gasoline shortages. Inflation was rising. Virtually all of his legislative initiatives were dead. Sensing discontent at this state of affairs, Carter staged his most spectacular display of Rafshoonery. He retired to his mountaintop, there to contemplate the nation’s plight. Days went by. Helicopter loads of professors, pop psychologists, distinguished elders, ethnic leaders, ministers, and politicians were flown up to share their thoughts. The vigil was interrupted only for sudden swoops down into startled communities to tap the wisdom of the common people. When the suspense about how long Carter could keep this up had become almost unendurable, he emerged to unload a lot of mystical mumbojumbo about a spiritual crisis in the land, then went back about his business. This is a president?
Jimmy Carter has met almost every challenge of his presidency by concentrating on the manipulation of imagery. In raising hokum to a new level of audacity and sophistication, he has relied shamelessly on the voters’ short memories, on their failure to connect word and deed (let alone deed and result). His malaise routine was the most dazzling example, his exploitation of the Iran hostages the most cynical. But there have been dozens of other episodes, like the time last February when he was simultaneously ordering a boycott of the summer Olympics to demonstrate the depth of his concern about Afghanistan, staging martial ceremonies to share the glory of American Winter Olympics medalists, and refusing to campaign or debate because he was worrying full-time about Iran.
Now Carter and his advisers are using every illusion in their corpus of legerdemain to avoid running on the record they have compiled. His television commercials, and indeed his whole campaign self-presentation, are simply images of presidentiality. The Carter people know that their record of accomplishments is indefensible. Jimmy Carter’s leadership has been conservative in the sense that the Soviet leadership is sometimes called conservative: cautious, never making any change unless it can’t be avoided, always reacting to crises and drifting the rest of the time. We’re not sure this describes the Soviet Union, but it is a good description of United States government policy in both domestic and foreign affairs under President Carter. At a time when we need a drastic rethinking of how we do business at home and abroad, and comprehensive reforms that will cut through the Gordian knot of interest-group politics, we’ve had a president with no strong feelings about how things ought to be done beyond a pious wish that they be done better. The White House has been run by people with no history of ever having thought about the great issues of governance until the moment they began governing, and no vision beyond the next election.
Jimmy Carter said in 1976, “We’ve got a government of stalemate.” This was an accusation against the incumbent. Now Carter’s supporters use the same point as an argument on behalf of the incumbent. Carter tried, they say, but the system makes success impossible. Congress is too sullen; the interest groups are too powerful; the economy is too sick. The president may well be stymied by these forces, but this is hardly a reason to reelect President Carter. What has he done to address the underlying paralysis of government? Carter’s bungling and evident lack of commitment made Congress even less cooperative than it was disposed to be at the beginning of his term. He has shown very little courage in standing up to special interests, and no leadership in persuading people that the special interest conspiracy against the general interest is one we all belong to. At what point does a presidential candidate stop getting credit for good intentions and start being measured by results? We think it’s when he’s running for reelection.
In 1976, Carter styled himself the artless outsider, uncorrupted by Washington and its evil habits. This year, in a typically brazen transformation, he is Mr. Experience, a worldly statesman in a job for which anything less than incumbency is inadequate qualification. But Carter is not the only one who’s experienced his presidency for the past four years. So have his constituents. It’s time to show that we’ve learned from experience.
This article originally ran in the October 4, 1980 issue of the magazine.