Is It All Carter's Fault?

Billy Carter’s name was on many lips during the last-minute attempt to supplant President Carter on the Democratic ticket, but the Carter record was on most minds. How much easier it would be for them, many Democrats thought, if they could make Ronald Reagan the issue in this election, rather than the administration’s record. Even if Jimmy Carter had vanished down one of the sinkholes periodically prescribed for him by the polls, the Democrats’ hope to escape their party’s performance would still have been disappointed. That is a good thing, for in the long run the only important question in the election is the Carter record. Without a grip on the origin of the President’s problems, it is hard to distinguish those that are due to his idiosyncracies and lapses from those built into the office and the times. Failures of the first sort can be corrected by changing the face in the Oval Office; failures of the second sort cannot. My view is that Carter is the scapegoat for, not the cause of, our worst political dissatisfactions, and that to expect they will be relieved if he is expelled is to think that a train’s burst boiler will be repaired if we shoot the engineer.

Readers of this magazine have not lacked opportunity to learn about the damage Carter has done through his peculiarities of thought and style. It is hard to imagine these traits changing in a second term, since they have altered so little in the first. It is also true that, from the beginning, Carter and his assistants have been all too willing to point their fingers elsewhere when looking for the reasons things go wrong. If their energy bill does not pass, it is because the public is complacent; if their message does not get across, it is because the press is shallow and corrupt. One cartoon was a great favorite in the first year of the administration. It showed two men walking outdoors as the earth opened in chasms, lightning bolts crashed down, and a brontosaurus appeared on the horizon. “That does it!” one man is saying. “I’m through with Carter!" But in at least three areas, Carter’s complaint is a fair one: he has tried to wrestle with problems that are likely to defeat anyone who holds the office until the problems as well as the men receive our close attention.

The first of these derives from the bureaucratic barriers that keep any President from accomplishing as much as all Presidents are expected to do. In an ideal world, Jimmy Carter might have mastered the diverse skills necessary to read the mind of every congressman, keep watch on every bureaucrat, select brilliant nominees for every post, and, through eloquence, touch every heart among his 200 million constituents. Jimmy Carter does not have all those skills, which is a problem for him. No one does, which is a problem for the rest of us. In a new book called All Things to All Men: The False Promise of the Modern American Presidency, the British journalist Godfrey Hodgson says that while the modern presidency was created by Franklin Roosevelt, it was also destroyed by him. The model Roosevelt set was that of the all-gifted virtuoso—chief legislator, national educator, crisis manager, crafty fox. None of his successors has been able to play all those roles successfully, and Hodgson says it is a shame that Roosevelt so nearly could. His dexterity as a leader concealed the weaknesses of the institution and diverted attention from the structural changes that would have made the job easier for the Presidents who followed. Despite his considerable successes with the Congress, Hodgson says of Roosevelt, “He had done nothing to change the rules of the game. He had simply shown how it was possible to win most of the time. In doing so, he greatly heightened the expectations—both in the Congress and in the nation—of what his successors would be able to accomplish. Yet after all he had done nothing, except by his example, to help them meet those expectations. . . . The standard we must demand of political institutions, however, is not that with luck they can be made to work by an occasional genius, but that they should enable able, honorable men of common clay to meet the more important demands the society makes on them.”

President Carter and his associates might well agree with every word, without knowing quite what to do about it. If they could speak with the full cynical knowledge they certainly now possess, they might say that the most devastating charge against Reagan, for all his talk about a “crusade” against waste in the government, is that he is just as innocent as they were four years ago, and just as certain to spin his wheels. But it is considered bad politics to say so; instead, the Carter campaign was preparing to put the best face on its record, using a believe-it-or-not approach. One pamphlet argues that Carter’s successes have been substantial, but that this “record of achievement is a record almost unknown to most Americans.” The pamphlet is composed of rhetorical questions: Did you know that four fifths of the legislation the President has proposed has been passed by the Congress? That he has appointed more blacks and other minorities to the federal judiciary than all other Presidents combined? That he has cut the burden of federal paperwork on citizens and businesses by 15 percent?

The second area of constraint is foreign affairs. There, all the debased talk about “new international orders” and “emerging regional influentials” may have obscured the fact that it really is harder for the United States to get its way internationally than at nearly any other time in fifty years. Ten years ago, the U.S. imported hardly any oil; the Soviets were not yet supersaturated with weapons; the Germans, Japanese, and French were not yet rich enough to sneer. All those things changed, under Republican administrations and Democratic, and they cannot be undone. It was during Carter’s watch that we “lost” Nicaragua and Iran, as Republican orators have pointed out; but I have yet to hear, in any of their speeches, just how far they would have been willing to go to keep Messrs. Somoza and Pahlavi on top. Through the primary campaign, Ronald Reagan escaped the need to enumerate the actions that would follow from his mighty-America rhetoric, and therefore postponed the moment when the press would fall in on him like a ton of bricks. That moment has arrived and the reporters are doing much of Carter’s work in riddling Reagan’s plans. Still, it is harder for Carter to explain his view of America’s limited powers than for Republicans to blast him. From one perspective, the hostages who languish in Iran are a perfect illustration that the modern world threatens great powers with indignities they simply cannot prevent. This perspective is harder to work into a campaign speech than is the Republican view of the matter, which is as proof that Carter is a weakling fool.

The third constraint is on the President’s ability to do anything about the economy. As a political issue, this will obviously be crucial, but its real importance is what it says about the options available to whoever holds office during the next two or three terms.

Like Richard Nixon in 1960 and Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980 is learning at first hand the difficulty of running on an incumbent’s record in the middle of a recession. The difference is that Ford and Nixon were Republicans, and therefore had some theoretical excuse for tolerating unemployment while fighting inflation. For a Democrat to do that is like an American fighter plane joining a kamikaze squad: no one can figure out what’s in it for him. In addition to the objective misery among unemployed voters, the political complaint against Carter from his Democratic kinsmen is that he failed to do what any sensible politician should—namely, pump up the economy at the right time, so things would be getting better in the spring and summer of election year. Academics are unanimous in lamenting this practice, but politicians (and businessmen) are puzzled when it does not occur. If Carter can’t even do this, the line goes, things must be worse than we thought.

“The same people who are telling you that are the ones who are coming in and whispering to us, ‘Keep it up, Mr. President! Don’t choke now!’” says Robert Strauss, Carter’s all-purpose adviser and campaign chairman, who has assumed the responsibility, traditionally reserved for vice-presidential candidates, of delivering the body punches to the other side. “If they’re saying things are so bad, why don’t they look at the stock market,” which reached plateaus during the summer it had not seen for years. “This President has been unwilling to do the things that are necessary to pump the economy up, to his everlasting credit. He has been willing to sacrifice a good part of his own constituency to stand up for sound and responsible policies that will have this nation on its way out of recession in six months and well on its way to recovery. It could cost him the presidency, but he knows it’s right.”

It would be news if Robert Strauss said anything but this; and if he had been on retainer to the Kennedy camp before the convention, he would have been the first to point out the disingenuous element in the argument he now makes. The “sound and responsible policies” the President is nobly sticking with were forced upon him by the vertiginous inflation earlier this year, which in turn had at least something to do with the big-deficit budget he had just announced and other of his economic plans. Still, there is something to Strauss’s argument, and other administration officials, who have far more direct contact than does Strauss with the nuts and bolts of economic planning, provide further evidence that if times are tough under Jimmy Carter, they’d be tough under anybody, even if we could negotiate a leader-swap for Helmut Schmidt. This is meant not as an alibi for Carter but as a suggestion that our problems originate somewhere other than with him.

The introductory text for this lesson is a comparison of the fundamentals of economic life in three periods: 1953-1968 (the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations), 1969-1972 (the first Nixon administration), and 1973-1979 (Nixon, Ford, and the first three years of Carter). This span covers both parties (sixteen years of Republicans, eleven of Democrats) and many different theories of managing the economy. The trend is all one-way.

Through all sixteen years of the first period, the average inflation rate was 2 percent, and the average unemployment 4.9 percent. In the second period, inflation was 5.3 and unemployment 4.9. In the third period, the average inflation rate was 8.5 percent and unemployment 6.8.

“Consider what this means,” says W. Bowman Cutter, a serious man in his thirties who, as executive associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, has for the past three years directly overseen the assembly of the federal budget. “How easy it was to be a liberal back when there was 4.9 percent unemployment and 2 percent inflation. You could spend a point or two on inflation to get unemployment down. Now you just do not have that margin. You simply cannot sustain as high a level of employment without subjecting the economy to real shocks and danger.'”

In the first period, productivity rose by 2.4 percent a year; in the second, by 2.1; in the third, by 0.5. In the first period, the capital stock expanded by 4.2 percent a year; in the third, by 2.8. In 1969, crude oil cost $3.21 per barrel. In 1980, it costs $33 or $34. In the first period, real personal compensation (that is, earnings after inflation) rose by 2.6 percent a year; in the third, by 0.3. Between the late 1950s and the late 1970s, personal taxes rose from 11 to 13 percent of personal income, so that “income” in the common sense— what’s left after taxes and inflation—has gone down in the last few years. Over this same time, patterns of government spending have also changed. In the first period, federal government outlays were 19.2 percent of the gross national product; in the third, they were 21.4 percent. In the first period, defense spending was half of all government spending, and “transfers" (Social Security, Medicaid, etc.) to individuals were one quarter. Now defense spending is one quarter of all government spending, and transfers are 45 percent.

“We are just beginning to grapple with the reality of the economic box we’re in—we as a people, we as this administration,” Cutter says. “We’re coming to the realization that the room for maneuver, the degrees of freedom in the mathematical sense, are much more limited than ten or twenty years ago, that the penalty for wrong guesses is infinitely worse, and that the margin for decisions is much finer. We’re beginning to appreciate that the situation suggests real limits to what the government can do. You used to think there were a lot of ways to do things in the government— taxing, spending, regulation. Now you can’t raise taxes because you’re afraid of what it will do to incentives. You can’t spend—but you’ll probably have to spend more for defense, and the automatic programs go up no matter what. You’re afraid of the effects of too much regulation. There’s just no room left in the system. All this has happened over twenty-seven years, under five Presidents, from two parties.”

Getting out of this “box,” in Cutter’s view, is the national task of the 1980s; what it will take is restraining the budget. “There is no combination of federal programs that would do you as much good in backing out of this box as really restraining the budget. You need to begin giving something back to the average worker, and the only way to do that is to cut taxes.”

Cut taxes? Restrain the government? On its face, this is strange talk, coming from the opponents of Ronald Reagan. It is also a formidable challenge to President Carter’s abilities as a salesman and a teacher. The more convincingly he makes the case that he will restrain the budget, the more he will seem, to traditional Democrats, to be betraying the economic commitments he made at the Democratic convention. The circumstances under which those commitments were made—Edward Kennedy’s thundering speech, followed by the Kennedy forces’ victory on several economic issues, followed in turn by Carter’s careful effort to explain away the platform’s strongest language—summed up Carter’s dilemma, and the party’s. Substantial numbers of Democrats believed that it was still possible to have what Kennedy was asking for— full employment and low interest rates. Carter’s challenge is to convince the liberals that some restraint is necessary and then to demonstrate to everyone else that he is actually more likely than Reagan to succeed at the task.

One argument Carter might advance in support of this non-obvious proposition is that he has the temperament required for the job. His penchant for plunging into details has caused him countless miseries in his presidency, but for restraining the budget, it is a valuable trait. Only someone with Carter’s stomach for tedious, case-by-case analysis will have the patience to make the thousand detailed decisions needed to change the trend. My experience of Carter is that he seemed more at home, and more in command, when reviewing the specifics of the budget than in almost any other role. Bowman Cutter says that the greatest challenge is to connect the small particular to the enormous whole—to convince the man who wants $10 million more for the Farmers’ Home Administration that there’s just no place to find his money in the whole $600 billion budget. If this discipline is not enforced by a President, it will surely be lost. From the beginning of his administration. Carter has applied it in braking the growth of many government programs. He might point out those trends and say they’ll continue.

Carter might also be strengthened by the “Nixon Goes to China” principle. Just as Richard Nixon, famous commie-hunter, was the right man to open relations with China, so someone basically in sympathy with federal social programs is the right man to rein them in. Taken to its extremes, this is an argument for Edward Kennedy instead of Jimmy Carter, but its corollary on the other extreme is that someone like Reagan, who talks about closing the whole federal city down, is the wrong man for this job. If Ronald Reagan were to take office proclaiming the start of his “crusade” against wasteful spending, he would not begin at the Pentagon. That leaves cuts in transfer programs or reductions in federal employees. When his first revised budget was announced and his chosen targets revealed, Democratic congressmen would hold press conferences and announce tersely that this means political war.

They would reflexively defend each federal regulation, each contract for consultants, each requirement for wheelchair-entries on all buses regardless of cost, as if the nation’s deepest principles were on the line. Those legislators may not consider Jimmy Carter a “liberal.” But he is a member of their party, and he subscribes to their basic belief that, for all their excesses, public programs have improved life for many people in the last fifty years and cannot be abolished wholesale. Working on that understanding, a budget-minded Democrat such as Carter—who was, remember, the one Democratic candidate who spoke consistently in 1976 about the limits of liberal programs—might find himself with a smaller budget in 1984 than a Republican President constantly fighting the Congress over first principles.

The somber economic prospect, when combined with the Republicans’ something-for-nothing tax-cut plan, also gives Carter an opportunity he has previously proven himself able to exploit: the chance to tell us the harsh truths that we all know, but that other candidates seem afraid to mention. It is not certain that Carter will take this approach. Some advisers were recommending that the President give a dismal-statistics talk himself, lecturing the people on the new realities, as he did in his first few pronouncements about energy problems in 1977. But there has always been a trimming, muting impulse within the administration.

Just as the President’s first thunderous warnings about energy were undercut a few days later when an administration paper proclaimed that an energy policy really wouldn’t hurt at all, the campaign approach to the economy may be the one signaled by the President’s acceptance speech to emphasize the 8 million jobs that have been created since 1977 and to tell the voters that they’ve never had it so good.

That would be too bad. Amid the gloom of most campaign polling data, there are indications that Carter might succeed as the teller of hard truths. Two thirds of the people in one campaign survey felt that, while Carter had bungled during his first term, he had learned from the experience and would do better next time. According to another Carter campaign poll, the President stood far ahead of Reagan in popular assessments of “trustworthiness.” I do not have a poll to back it up, but I still think Carter is at his best when speaking honestly about complications and realities, rather than talking down to the people, with cynical simplification, about how good we all are and how much he has done. It was the element of honesty that first got John Anderson off the ground; the same element, if recaptured, might help save Jimmy Carter.

By now Carter understands the realities of his office, and of the country’s choices. In our hearts we understand them too. Does he know that we’re big enough to hear them?