Conjuring Carter: Desperate GOP once again goes back to the well

July 30, 2008|By THOMAS F. SCHALLER

I try to read every e-mail readers send me, and respond at least once to all but those who resort to unseemly language and name-calling. (You would be surprised by how many letters are not, shall we say, "family-friendly.")

One of the things I've noticed in critical e-mails, ostensibly sent by conservative readers, is the frequent invocation of a person who occasionally makes news but is generally not part of our daily national political discourse: Jimmy Carter.

The former Democratic president's lone term ended almost 28 years ago. And yet, for a surprising number of people, Mr. Carter is like a boogeyman lurking in America's political basement, ready to spring up at any moment and chain-saw the country in half.

Why this continuing obsession? The answer, I eventually realized, is that Mr. Carter is the Republicans' answer to Franklin Roosevelt's endless demonization of Herbert Hoover.

Mr. Roosevelt, a Democrat, ran against Mr. Hoover only once, in 1932, and soundly beat the incumbent Republican - a victory that launched the New Deal and its profound regulatory and programmatic changes.

But FDR's campaign against Hooverism worked so well in 1932 that Mr. Roosevelt and Democrats elsewhere down the ballot figured: Why stop? The permanent anti-Hoover campaign catapulted Mr. Roosevelt to re-election three more times; vestiges of anti-Hooverism can even be found in the 1948 legacy election of FDR's Democratic successor, Harry Truman.

In partisan politics, you see, it's OK to keep kicking a man when he's down - as long as it keeps working. For New Deal Democrats, the best part was that Mr. Hoover lived another 31 years after leaving the White House, still the record for post-presidential longevity.

That standard may fall soon, however: Mr. Carter is presently third all-time on the longevity list, trailing only Mr. Hoover and Gerald Ford (just under 30 years). If he lives until August 2012, the Georgian will surpass both predecessors.

The problem for disgruntled conservatives is that the Carter administration's relevancy has faded into near-obscurity, much as Mr. Hoover's presidency had by 1960. The former peanut farmer from Plains is no longer a convenient punching bag.

More than a few conservative commentators - from older heads such as New York Times columnist David Brooks and former Republican Congressman Mickey Edwards to young hot shots Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, co-authors of the recently released book Grand New Party - speak openly of how the GOP has become dormant and divided, lacking in credibility or new ideas.

Yet of all the measures of the Republicans' decline, few are as indicative of the insufficiency as Carter-bashing. Not only is that well running dry, but Republicans also realize that just as Mr. Carter replaced Mr. Hoover as the ex-president most useful for derision, the torch of scorn shall soon pass to its obvious and deserving heir: George W. Bush.

Mr. Bush sure has earned the title. The least popular president in the history of polling has caused more damage to the country than Presidents Hoover and Carter ever did, combined.

Unnecessary war, the illegal wiretapping of Americans, the sanctioning of torture, massive deficits, incompetence in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, hundreds of signing statements willfully ignoring acts of Congress, the firing of U.S. attorneys unwilling to use their powers for partisan gain, the leaking of the name of a working CIA asset, zero progress on health insurance or climate change, a Dow Jones that today is not much higher than it was seven years ago when the first of four non-stimulating tax cuts were passed - need I go on?

I suspect the realization that Mr. Bush is destined, this January, to inherit the yoke of most-maligned former president is what motivates Republicans to take a few final potshots at poor old Jimmy Carter, who will be 84 this fall.

Mr. Bush, on the other hand, just turned 62 a few weeks ago. He eats well, works out religiously and goes to bed early. The 43rd president is likely to live for a long time after he packs up his Oval Office boxes and heads back to West Texas.

You can bet liberals and Democrats wish him great longevity.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is

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