Barack Obama speaking at a campaign stop in Iowa on July 4.
Every presidential campaign looks to history for comfort, for a theory of victory. Late last week, Sen. Barack Obama's campaign suggested its model was Ronald Reagan's 1980 capture of the Republican nomination. Reagan made a very good president, but he is a very bad electoral parallel for Sen. Obama. The more apt one is Jimmy Carter.
The Carter presidency was disastrous indeed, but because of the malaise and hostages and killer rabbits, people forget what an impressive, interesting campaign he waged to win the Democratic nomination in 1976.
The best account of the race is Jules Witcover's excellent 1980 book "Marathon". Witcover explains that the 1976 campaign actually began four years earlier - much like the current campaign. At a 1972 meeting of the National Governors Conference in Houston, Jimmy Carter, who had been governor of Georgia for just a year, led a last-minute move among Democrats to drop George McGovern as their presumptive presidential nominee. The revolt failed. At the Democratic convention a few weeks later, Carter mounted a quiet campaign to become McGovern's running mate. This also failed, leaving Carter and his advisers unsure about their political futures.
By 1973, Carter had decided to run for president himself. He had served only four years in the state Senate and was limited to a single term in the governor's mansion by Georgia law. But despite this lack of experience, he had immense personal charm and a sense that America was yearning for moral leadership.
Carter's principal problem was Ted Kennedy. As Witcover wrote, "1973 saw a seemingly inexorable drift in the party back to the dream of another Kennedy candidacy, with all of the political magic it promised. . . . National polls showed him far ahead of all prospective contenders; local and state politicians who came to Washington for party meetings and other affairs adopted an attitude of resignation. . . . They shared doubts about the man's electability, but accepted the inevitability of his nomination."
The Carter team did not. As an early memo from aide Hamilton Jordan argued, "You may be sure that in two decades of American politics, the Kennedy family has run over and alienated a lot of people." Still, Kennedy was making campaign trips as late as mid-September 1974. Then he abruptly withdrew from the race. Nearly a dozen other candidates jumped in shortly after his announcement, but Carter had already taken a lead in organization.
The political environment changed suddenly, too. Democrats had not planned on running against an incumbent Republican, but Watergate blossomed in 1974, and Nixon's resignation allowed President Ford to run. Democrats won the midterm elections in a landslide, finishing with 61 seats in the Senate, 291 seats in the House, and control of 36 state houses. A year later South Vietnam fell, putting a period to America's failed war.
By the time the primaries began in earnest, the Democratic field was crowded, but with victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Carter had a final obstacle: George Wallace. A 1972 assassination attempt had crippled Wallace. His political life appeared over, but while he concentrated on recovery, the specter of his potential to throw the 1976 contest into chaos loomed large in the minds of campaign strategists. Eventually Wallace did enter the race, only to be soundly defeated by Carter in Florida, effectively ending his run in national politics. From there, Carter breezed to the nomination, bothered only by the blip of Jerry Brown's last-minute foray.
How did Carter do it? It wasn't his bold policy ideas. As Witcover acknowledged, "taking clear-cut positions was never his cutting edge."
What succeeded was the idea of Jimmy Carter. He campaigned on the concepts of unity and personal excellence (his election book was titled "Why Not the Best?"). Plus there was the novelty of a liberal Democrat who would compete in the South. All of this, combined with his personal presence, won him favorable, even fawning, treatment by the media. Carter's staff had actually counted on this. Jordan predicted to Carter, talking about the liberal media elites, "It is my contention that they would be fascinated by the prospect of your candidacy and treat it seriously through the first several primaries."
Raise your hand if any of this sounds familiar. Barack Obama served six years in the Illinois state senate and just two years as a U.S. senator before launching his presidential campaign. He is quite charismatic, has made few policy distinctions, and has fixed his campaign on the notion of unity and national excellence. (His campaign book is titled "The Audacity of Hope".) His press coverage has been - objectively speaking - somewhat messianic.
However, Obama faces the mirror image of Carter's 1974 dilemma: The inevitable candidate (Hillary Clinton) sits to his right, and potential Big Trouble (Al Gore) waits off to his left, casting, like Wallace, a long shadow over the race. Like Carter, odds are that Obama will have to face, and beat, only one of these titans to win the nomination.
There are differences, to be sure; such analogies go only so far. Obama does not seem to possess Carter's comfort with dealing from the bottom of the deck. (In his run for governor, Carter's campaign went to a Ku Klux Klan rally and passed out pictures of his Democratic primary opponent, Carl Sanders. The pictures showed Sanders socializing with two of his black friends.) But the most important difference may be in the environment around them. Obama may be Jimmy Carter, but will 2008 be 1976?
Perhaps. The 2006 midterm elections bore some similarity to those of 1974. But, at least for now, the national mood seems closer to what it was in 1979. It is faint praise to observe that the last eight years have not given us either Watergate or Vietnam. Instead, we've been subjected to a hapless Bush administration whose errors are more reminiscent of President Carter than of President Nixon.
Whether or not that creates the demand for a fresh face, like a Carter in 1976, or a strong hand, like a Reagan in 1980, remains to be seen.