President Carter

This assessment by Tyler Cowen reminded me that, in 1980, I and just about all my friends hated Jimmy Carter. Most of us much preferred him to Reagan but still hated Carter. I wouldn’t associate this with any particular ideological feeling—it’s not that we thought he was too liberal, or too conservative. He just seemed completely ineffectual. I remember feeling at the time that he had no principles, that he’d do anything to get elected.

In retrospect, I think of this as an instance of uniform partisan swing: the president was unpopular nationally, and attitudes about him were negative, relatively speaking, among just about every group.

My other Carter story comes from a conversation I had a couple years ago with an economist who’s about my age, a man who said that one reason he and his family moved from town A to town B in his metropolitan area was that, in town B, they didn’t feel like they were the only Republicans on their block.

Anyway, this guy described himself as a “Jimmy Carter Republican.”

Me: You mean you liked Carter’s policies on deregulation?

Him: No. I mean that Jimmy Carter made me a Republican.

9 thoughts on “President Carter

  1. Reminds me of a cartoon from the '81 recession: Two down-and-out types sitting on a park bench with a newspaper headlined "Unemployment Rises." One says to the other: "I myself blame the Democrats. Because of them I voted for Reagan."

  2. I think Carter is the most under-rated modern president. Given the circumstances he faced, he has an amazing list of accomplishments. Camp David, of course, but also very successful deregulation, almost zero miltary casualities despite several provocations (including Iran and Afghanistan), and a number of smaller successes that meant a lot to those affected (pardoning Viet Nam era draft dodgers).

  3. Given the circumstances he [Carter] faced, he has an amazing list of accomplishments.

    As they used to say on Monte Python's Flying Circus, "And now for something completely different."

    Let's get specific about Carter.

    1. He undermined the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi, which led to Iran becoming a Islamic state. Let's not forget that under the Shah, Iran was a ally of the U.S., and at least tolerant of Israel. While the Shah was certainly an autocrat, he was not a despot. Today Iran is a major threat to peace in the Middle East, and a sponsor to international terror. Thanks Jimmy.

    2. Carter is the reason we don't reprocess nuclear waste like France and Japan. This was a huge mistake that we still live with. His decision led to the Yucca Mountain Project, now canceled. Currently we have no way to handle waste from reactors other than to let them pile up at the reactor site. Thanks Jimmy.

    3. Carter tried to cancel unneeded and wasteful water projects. He would have been at least partially successful had he not tried to cancel them all. In the end he got nothing.

    4. Carter wanted the Europeans to adopt enhanced radiation nuclear weapons also known as the "neutron bombs." The Europeans resisted, but he persisted, twisting their arms until they agreed. Then he changed his mind and canceled the whole project leaving the European leaders in an embarrassing position. They hated him for that. German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt even went so far as to criticize Carter in public in strident terms.

    5. The Carter Administration combined the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) with the Federal Energy Administration, and the Federal Power Commission, creating the behemoth Department of Energy (DOE). The mission of the DOE: make America independent of foreign oil. It has failed utterly. In fact I can think of no DOE mega project that has been successful. This wasteful, expensive and mostly useless federal bureaucracy should never have been created. Now we are stuck with it. Thanks Jimmy.

    6. The Carter Administration also gave us the "other DOE:" The Department of Education. While the energy department has a few useful functions such as the EIA, the Education Department has no reason to exist at all. Education in America is a local function and was until the DOE. Does it make sense to tax people, send the money to Washington and then get it back as grants to local school systems? Let the states do their own experiments with education.

    7. Amnesty for draft dodgers. These people made a conscious decision to break the law. Why did they deserve to be pardoned? This was a abuse of the pardon power.

    8. His handling of the whole Iran hostage crisis was inept at best, but Operation Eagle Claw (rescue attempt) is a model of incompetence. Ill conceived and ill executed, this mission failed utterly and made the situation much worse. Typical Carter.

    9. Carter did not know how to be president. He would go to bed reading jet fighter manuals. His attention to detail was inappropriate for even an assistant cabinet secretary. A sign of an incompetent leader is the inability to delegate authority.

    All this is a shame because Carter is an intelligent man. You didn't get into Rickover's nuclear submarine force without being smart. Too bad for Carter.

    As an ex-president Carter has been even worse, revealing himself to be an anti-Semite.

  4. I never really understood the paroxysms of irritation that Carter aroused in people (notably Helmut Schmidt). The only time I got really irritated was when he pulled out of the Moscow Olympics.

  5. Funny, I went to school with Andrew but I don't remember that he or I or anyone we knew "hated" Carter. My recollection is that we just thought he was sort of inept, which he was.

    I'm no expert on Carter's (or anyone's) presidency, but my general feeling is that his main problems were (1) he wasn't pragmatic enough: he had the crazy idea that if something was obviously the right thing to do, Congress would go along. (Viewed from our vantage point now, this seems almost moronic, but I think it seemed more believable at the time); and (2) he trusted his military and political advisors too much, in terms of his foreign policy agenda. This seems to me to be less forgivable than (1), because it was so soon after Vietnam that you'd think you'd know better than, for instance, to trust an optimistic political or military assessment of an insurgency against a despot we were supporting. (I'm talking about Iran, which I hope is obvious). And going along with the hostage rescue attempt…OK, you've got your top military guys saying "oh, absolutely, this is going to work," and I guess you desperately want to believe them, but you can't expect the military brass to give you an honest assessment of this sort of thing.

    But I think Carter looks a lot better in retrospect. At least he had the right ideas on a lot of things, even though he was ineffectual. Contrast that with Reagan, who had disastrously bad ideas that he was able to execute all to well.

    And Carter has been pretty good as an ex-president, participating usefully in election monitoring and other activities, and being the most prominent U.S. figure to speak some obvious truths about Cuba and Israel. So, I give him more credit now than I used to.

  6. Phil:

    Hmmm, maybe "hate" is too strong. Perhaps it would be better to say we despised him. I don't think we thought he was merely well-meaning but inept; I recall an actual feeling of dislike.

  7. Andrew, you may have despised Carter, though I don't remember you ever saying so. Of course, I might have just forgotten…although I do remember some of our politically related discussions of approximately that era: welfare queens, "trees cause pollution," and so on. But I could easily have forgotten anything you said about Carter.

    As for me, I'm almost certain that I didn't despise him, although I do remember thinking he was not good. He was the first president whose performance I could even begin to judge for myself, so I didn't have a lot to go on.

Comments are closed.