Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Carter Comparison (And Why It Doesn't Wash)

John McCain and the Republican party have returned fire against Obama's blistering attacks, and the latest volley of grapeshot again reveals much about the candidate and the increasingly weakened organization of which he is the presumptive heir. Yesterday McCain unleashed the most offensive epithet in conservative circles that can ever be uttered: the Carter comparison. For this fear bomb to be detonated so early into the general election, one wonders whether this is a sign of a no-holds-barred fight between both men or a kind of desperation to put Obama away as quickly as possible.

One also wonders if this strongly worded attack allows us to peer into the mentality of frustrated conservatives. As was noted on MSNBC's First Read this morning, Republicans may be finally warming to the notion that George W. Bush is their party's Jimmy Carter.

Indeed, his name will be anathema to Democrats for the next several years, at minimum. But I disagree strongly with First Read's assertion that people may not remember the impact of the Carter presidency. The GOP has built a kind of doom and gloom laden romantic mythology about the Carter years, because it easily sets the stage for their hero, Ronald Reagan. And it keeps their stock futures high.

According to the persuasive fantasy encouraged by GOP propaganda, which still circulates as fact, Reagan arrived on the scene as the metaphorical brave knight in shining armor, rescuing this country from the excesses of an exceptionally incompetent administration, economic woes, and excessively high interest rates. This kind of narrative fantasy caters well to our desire to see good overcome evil and to have a Cecil B. DeMille ending: grand, sweeping, and ultimately happy in conclusion.

Carter's presidency was an ultimate failure and he was a poor commander-in-chief, certainly. And though many do not remember his administration, the center-right has kept alive the memory of his administration because it strikes a dramatic contrast between the Carter years and the subsequent eight years of Reagan, who despite his detractors, was still an overwhelmingly popular President.

If any candidate who ran for President as a Democrat this year reminds me of Jimmy Carter, it's John Edwards, not Barack Obama. Edwards, a southerner with an aw-shucks persona, a flair for populist rhetoric, and not much in the way of substance underneath it all is the more apt comparison. But even this comparison is largely superficial.

I can understand why McCain would invoke the name of Carter--it's just smart politics and it's a sure-fire get-out-the-vote tactic that has served the GOP well for the past twenty-eight years. One wonders, however, if this comparison has long outlasted its purpose. It will be effective to some degree or another, but its target audience, the aging demographic of Reagan Democrats are not the monolithic voting bloc they once were.

And neither should one should underestimate the frustration bubbling underneath the surface, namely that we continue to be mired down in a war in a faraway land with end date in sight. While it might be arguably more stable in Iraq in the past few months, it cannot be overlooked that the Iraq war has become a money drain, which devalues our currency and increases our economic woes substantially.

All of these factors combined will make even the Carter comparison not enough to put McCain in office.

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