Jimmy and Barack: Why Do We Torment Ourselves?

In a recent article, I placed Presidents Carter and Obama in the pantheon of our worst presidents; and then in a follow-up piece, I considered which of the two was worse. Because it has taken less time than usual for the opinion of history to congeal, Jimmy Carter is already widely acknowledged by historians and pundits to have been one of the most awful chief executives that our country has ever endured. I have absolutely no doubt that history will be equally unkind to the present occupant of the White House. Furthermore, Mr. Obama might break Carter’s speed record for the shortest time between inauguration of his successor and the widespread acknowledgment of his ignominy. Tangentially, Carter has gone on to be the absolute worst former president in our nation’s history. One wonders whether Obama will eclipse him there as well.

One would hope that the US will not similarly afflict itself again for a very long while – especially not in 2012. But if we are to spare ourselves the grief and damage of another wretched President, it behooves us to understand the reasons that the populace was foolish enough to freely select these two disasters.

Carter. A simplistic explanation is encapsulated in two words: Watergate and Vietnam. The American people were disgusted by the former and demoralized by the latter. Nixon’s resignation ameliorated the disgust to some extent, but Ford’s pardon reignited it. Augmenting the people’s dismay was the calamity of Vietnam. Yes, the Paris accords had allowed American troops to be evacuated – in less than glorious fashion. But the people seemed not to blame the subsequent North Vietnamese takeover of the South on the Democrats who cut off aid to the latter. And they forgot that the war was started originally by the Democrats. Their wrath was concentrated upon the Republicans. So, between Watergate and Vietnam, the people were thoroughly fed up with the Republicans and might have elected Mickey Mouse if he had garnered the Democratic nomination.

This explains the Dems’ victory in 1976, but not how the obscure, untested, small-minded and – as we eventually learned – thoroughly inept Jimmy Carter wrested the nomination from a large group of (seemingly) far more qualified candidates. The single word that explains this phenomenon is Washington. The American people were as disgusted with Washington in general as they were with the Republicans in particular. And Carter’s competitors were all Washington insiders. Carter was the fresh face, untainted by Washington politics, a new broom ready and eager to sweep clean the corruption, duplicity and improperly gained and deployed power that people saw as the hallmark of Washington politics. They envisioned Carter bringing forth a new tone of morality, equality and attention paid to the little guy trying to make a buck. How fortuitous for him – but not for the rest of us!

However, as I said, this is the simplistic explanation. There was something far deeper going on here, which I will explain after I supply a simplistic explanation for our latest presidential calamity.

Obama. There are three magic words in this case also. The first two are Iraq and spending. The casualty list in Iraq was a fraction of that in Vietnam, but the Left (and many others) despised Bush for the Iraq war as deeply as their parents had despised Nixon and Johnson for Vietnam. At the same time, there was profound disillusionment on the Right at the profligate spending by Bush and the Republican Congress. These factors combined to energize liberals and demoralize conservatives, and therefore set the stage for a victory by the Dems in 2008 – again, virtually independent of whom they nominated.

So why did an obscure, untested, small-minded and inept candidate get the nod? (That would be Barack Obama, folks – note the use of the same adjectives as in the case of the hapless Jimmy Carter.) Okay, here is the third magic word: Hillary. The Dems had been positioning themselves to nominate Hillary ever since Bill left the Oval Office. There was no one who was going to defeat her in 2008. Thus in some sense, Obama had only one competitor – the rest of the Democratic candidates for the nomination were irrelevant. Through a combination of brilliant strategy by his handlers, a surprisingly incompetent performance by Hillary’s handlers, and the key fact that her negatives (outside liberal bastions like NY) always exceeded her positives, BHO did the unimaginable and took down the Clinton machine.

Obama had something else going for him. This is delicate to discuss, but it seems clear in retrospect that his status as a black man helped – rather than hurt, as many initially expected – him among the electorate. There is no question that a large number of Americans saw the possibility of electing a black man to the presidency as an act of atonement and expiation – one that would settle the debt the country owed to black Americans whom it had oppressed for generations, and one that would finally turn the page on our nation’s sordid history of racial segregation and discrimination. Aided by a complicit media, the people willfully ignored the obvious inadequacies in the man: the nearly total lack of experience, the overwhelmingly left-wing record, his associations with radicals and racists, and his negative attitude toward the country that he sought to lead. He was charming, eloquent, charismatic and talked a great game of post-partisanship, not to mention “hope and change.” And to top it off, the Republicans nominated an old, confused, weak and unappealing opponent. It’s a wonder that the election was as close as it was.

Now to the deeper issue. It is that the fulcrum of the political spectrum in America has shifted so incredibly far to the left over the last 85 years that it has totally skewed the meanings of Left and Right, of Liberal and Conservative. As has been related by myself (see articles (1), (2) or (3), for example) and numerous other authors, the Left has conducted a long march through all branches of the media, the educational establishment (both higher and K-12), the legal profession, unions, libraries, foundations, the government bureaucracy and even the upper echelons of the corporate world. The march has been remarkably successful and the Left has taken control of virtually all the opinion-molding organs of American society. In so doing, it has completely changed the political/cultural/economic frame of reference in the United States. One crucial result is that what is patently leftist/statist/socialist thinking is viewed as mainstream, while traditional/conservative opinions are considered extreme and reactionary, and often racist, sexist, homophobic or xenophobic. To cite another manifestation of this massive change in our political center of gravity, since the election of 1924 – when both candidates were conservative (this is discussed in another article) – the political profile of every Democratic nominee for President has ranged somewhere from hard left to extreme left (except perhaps for JFK) and the profile of every Republican Presidential nominee (with the clear exception of Ronald Reagan) has ranged from squishy centrist to moderately liberal. It is not just in our presidential contests, but in essentially all aspects of American political/cultural life, the battle of ideas is contested between the lines demarcated by extreme left and moderate left – the Right, and certainly the hard Right, is implicitly ruled out of bounds of the American gestalt.

Now consider the selection of a President in this environment. Normal odds guarantee that in either party, a truly unsatisfactory and/or unqualified nominee will emerge on occasion. The Republicans have coughed up a few. To my mind none of Nixon, Dole or McCain should have been seriously considered and the latter two would have been as dreadful as the first had they been elected. But with their inherent advantage – because of the skewed political climate – when the Dems put up a clunker, that candidate is much more likely than a correspondingly woeful Republican to win the election. Thus Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

Clearly the solution is to shift the aforementioned fulcrum back to geopolitical center. An enormous and existential challenge, to be sure! The country made a halting start in 2010. We shall see whether it can sustain and build on that momentum next fall.
This post also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative at: