Thursday, September 30, 2010

What If . . . Jimmy Carter won his second term?

Book 86: Jimmy Carter by Julian E. Zelizer

What if . . . ?

I've always been a fan of that open-ended question, especially as it relates to my decades-long infatuation with Marvel Comics. What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four? What if the Fantastic Four had different powers? What if Doctor Doom had become a hero?

The possibilities are endless. Not simply as they relate to the Marvel Universe, but to the more mundane and superhero-free universe that we inhabit.

Consider, What if, in 1980, Jimmy Carter had won election to his second term as president? Ronald Reagan would never have been president. By the time, Reagan's next opportunity came around, in 1984, he Reagan would have been 72 and it seems reasonable to believe voters would have turned elsewhere.

If Reagan had not been President, George Bush would not have been Vice President and, again, it seems reasonable to believe that Bush would have never been elected President. If we did not have Bush I, we would not have had W.

And if we had not had W. . . . well, so it goes. America's political landscape would have been transformed.

But Carter did not win. As Julian Zelizer documents in his biography of Carter -- another fine entry in the American Presidents series -- the peanut farmer from Georgia ran afoul of a combination of his own shortcomings and a series of national and world events crippling to any political ambitions.

Some of Carter's shortcomings were born in his first campaign for President. He ran as the consummate Washington outsider alienating members of Congress, including members of his own party. Carter disliked legislative politics and the infighting and ass-kissing it entailed, again alienating members of his own party; members he would need to secure not only passage of his legislative programs, but to pull together the disparate segments of the Democratic Party in support of his campaign for re-election.

Carter had the misfortune to want to save the world -- notably in his efforts to bring peace to the Middle East -- at a time that his own country was drowning in unemployment, high energy prices and the shock of the Iranian hostage crisis. He was never able to successfully cope with those domestic and foreign challenges, driving Independents and many traditional supporters of the Democratic Party into the arms of a nascent Conservative movement.

Zelizer provides a balanced appraisal of Carter as President. He notes, rightly, I think, that Carter was more successful on the world stage in the years following his presidency than he was during his ill-fated four-year term.

The general view of Carter is that he was a good man ill-suited and overwhelmed by the duties of the presidency. Zelizer corrects that view. Carter was an intelligent man and his presidency was largely successful in its first two years. "The president pushed for some of the most comprehensive energy programs that had ever been attempted and won support for a few of those policies, such as solar energy, that are today considered essential," Zelizer writes.

The institutionalization of human rights within American foreign policy and brokering a durable peace agreement between Israel and Egypt rank among his most significant and lasting accomplishments.

Ultimately, Carter was overwhelmed by his own shortcomings, the press of national and world events and a movement that's time had clearly come. Zelizer's analysis of Carter's one term as president opens the door to another question:

What if Jimmy Carter had never been elected president?

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