“Surely the Lord sent Jimmy Carter,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s father proclaimed at the 1976 Democratic Convention, “to come on out and bring America back where she belongs.”
The avowedly “born again” Jimmy Carter campaigned on his personal religiosity far more than any president since World War II. In an interview with Pat Robertson on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Carter explained that “secular law is compatible with God’s laws,” but if the two were in conflict, “we should honor God’s law.” Robertson endorsed Carter. So did Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, who said, “God has his hand upon Jimmy Carter to run for president.”
Though it is hard to fathom today, given that Carter is one of the dullest personalities in American public life, there was a time when he was seen as a deeply charismatic figure. One of his aides privately urged him in a memo to “capitalize on your greatest asset — your personal charm.” Newsweek insisted that he “evokes memories of Kennedy’s style.” Jules Witcover, who chronicled the 1976 campaign in his book, “Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976,” writes that Carter’s magnetism was so powerful, he could conduct “personal political baptisms” with voters.
In an article partially headlined, “On Carter: ‘Country is Ready’ for the Hope He Stirs,” U.S. News & World Report (which wasn’t always a college ranking guide) interviewed Brandeis political scientist Thomas Cronin, who explained that “Carter’s coalition is more of a personal matter.” Voters are attracted to his “engaging personality and to his smile, his centrist tone.” Some in the Democratic Party hoped that Carter’s stunning success in the South and with the more socially conservative evangelical vote was a sign that the Democrats had truly reclaimed the center — and the White House with it — for generations.
It was not to be. The liberals left him in the primary for Ted Kennedy. The evangelicals and the Southerners left him in the fall for Ronald Reagan. If the Lord had sent Carter, it was to set the stage for the Reagan revolution.
The Carter presidency failed and his coalition dissipated because you can’t hold a coalition together with personality alone. You need to actually govern in a way that satisfies your constituency.
“The New Deal coalition is called the ‘New Deal Coalition’ and not ‘the Great Depression coalition’ for a reason,” says political analyst Jay Cost. FDR offered a winning political program. Carter offered sanctimony, arrogance and the sense that he bit off more than he could handle.
If the name Barack Obama hasn’t sprung to mind yet, you must be staying in the same bunker where much of the Democratic leadership is holed up.
Obama’s campaign was Carteresque on several fronts. The consummate outsider, Obama promised a transformational presidency, a new accommodation with religion, a new centrism, a changed tone. And there was no shortage of conjecture that Obama — a.k.a. “the one” — was sent by the Lord to his chosen people, “the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
The Carter-Obama comparison is not new. Rich Lowry of the National Review visited it at length in 2007. It’s also imperfect. For starters, Obama was never as conservative as Carter, and Obama has gotten more accomplished than Carter did. But he hasn’t governed in a way that has held his coalition together.
After the 2008 election, various liberal pundits insisted that Obama’s personal popularity would bring about a sea change and a “new liberal order,” in the words of Peter Beinart in Time magazine. According to Beinart, the Obama congressional coalition appeared as enduring as FDR’s. Youngsters seemed like a pot of electoral gold, because the under-30 vote went for Obama by a margin of 2 to 1. Harold Meyerson celebrated that Obama’s popularity among the young would usher in a rebirth in popularity for socialism. E.J. Dionne insisted that the millennials were the next “New Dealers.”
That’s all somewhere between dubious and ludicrous now. As this newspaper reported over the weekend, “Obama’s coalition is frayed and frazzled.” Independents defected long ago, and young people are heading for the door. And every day he seems more like the Lord’s unwitting herald of the revolution to come.