Attempts to “Carterize” the Race

Romney supporters seem to want to paint Obama as Carter. This is unlikely to help.

Doug Mataconis’ post this morning on the 1980 election and a current legend concerning its narrative struck me as part of a broader set of examples in which some on the Romney side of the aisle are trying their darnedest of late to paint Obama as Carter.  The reason for so-doing are obvious:  the last failed Democratic president was Jimmy Carter and, further, Carter has been the Republican’s benchmark for the low water mark in US history since, well, a long time ago.  As such, it makes perfect sense that there would be some interest in conjuring Carter imagery here.   There is, also, a vague set of historical similarities, i.e., a Democratic incumbent with a weak economy facing a Republican challenger.  However, there is a substantial lack of direct parallels.  For example, Carter with the economy was already having troubles prior to his administration, he did not inherit an economic meltdown from Ford.  Further, there was that whole hostage crisis in Iran, amongst other problems.

One of the lamer example of “Carterization” that I have see in the last couple of days from the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential:  Obama echoes Carter with ‘shoot first’ criticism of Romney.

“Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” President Obama said in a CBS interview last night, criticizing Romney’s reaction to the embassy attack in Cairo. Romney criticized the Obama administration’s ‘apology’ in response to the attacks on the embassy and subsequent failure to condemn the attacks right away.

Obama’s remarks, however, echo frequent criticisms made by President Jimmy Carter of Ronald Reagan, then his opponent for the presidency.

Carter criticized Reagan’s views on foreign policy during his speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1980, slamming Reagan for living in a “fantasy world” and noting his inability to understand the “complex global changes” in foreign policy.

“It’s a make believe world. A world of good guys and bad guys, where some politicians shoot first and ask questions later,” Carter said, “No hard choices. No sacrifice. No tough decisions. It sounds too good to be true – and it is. The path of fantasy leads to irresponsibility. The path of reality leads to hope and peace.”

After Reagan’s nomination in July 1980, Carter criticized Republicans calling it “a party with a narrow vision, a party that is afraid of the future, a party whose leaders are inclined to shoot from the hip, a party that has never been willing to put its investment in human beings who are below them in economic and social status.”

Because, you see, they both used the word “shoot”!  Setting aside, for the moment the utterly banal and commonplace nature of the metaphors in question, it should be noted that Obama was referring to a specific incidence (Romney’s widely criticized attempt at making political hay over the attacks on the Egyptian embassy, which really did have the feel of shooting first and then aiming later) and Carter’s attempt to paint Reagan as reckless cowboy.  In other, one was a more specific critique, the other an attempt at a broad critique.  Of course, even if we assume that the attempts a metaphor deployment were identical, so what?  The notion that President A used a metaphor over three decades ago and now President B has used it means that A=B is some pretty pathetic math, even for a pundit.

Another example, from a WaPo piece (h/t:  John Cole):

“There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation,” Richard Williamson, a top Romney foreign policy adviser, said in an interview. “For the first time since Jimmy Carter, we’ve had an American ambassador assassinated.”

While I recognize the roles played by the Carter and Reagan archetypes in the Republican mythos, I have a hard time seeing this as effective in terms of doing anything other than convincing the already convinced.  But, is there anything about the Romney campaign at the moment that is doing anything other than that?

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Jr says:

    These people are desperate.

    When you are down two scores with 2 minutes left, you always start throwing hail marys. The problem for the Romney bots is Obama is quite strong on Foreign Policy and has many success, Mitt Romney on the other hand has no credibility and looks/sounds like a complete idiot every time he tries to talk “tough”.

  2. al-Ameda says:

    They have been trying to “Carterize” Obama for 4 years.

    The results are in:
    Bin Laden dead, Qaddafi dead, attempt to “Carterize” Obama dead.

  3. stonetools says:

    Three problems with this strategy:

    1. Romney isn’t Reagan.
    2.Obama isn’t Carter
    3. The Reagan/Republican program isn’t relevant to the current situation.

    This means that Romney will not convince the undecided voter by trying run as Reagan vs. Carter. It just isn’t 1980 any more.

  4. Modulo Myself says:

    There’s no comparison on the foreign policy front. The Iranian revolution was a revolution that overthrew a major American ally, and it happened all under Carter’s watch.

    Whereas the attacks on the embassies and the protests today seem to be the exact opposite of what a revolution would be like.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Wow… The resemblance is uncanny.

  6. Jib says:

    Damn the GOP is OLD! No one remembers cultural events before they are 5 (only family stuff) and according to XKCD by 2013, over 50% of the country will have no memory of Carter.

    FYI, to all those repubs who complain “How long are you going to bring up Bush! That was 4 years ago!”, Carter was first elected 36 years ago. I plan to keep bringing up good ole ‘W’ until at least 2036!

  7. Modulo Myself says:

    The constant invocation of Jimmy Carter is fairly bizarre, considering he lost reelection 32 years ago. There are people who have the deep concerns of middle age who would have been unable to vote for the guy. In 1980, do we think Carter’s team was citing Truman’s comeback in 1948 over Thomas Dewey as a talisman of hope?

  8. Tsar Nicholas says:

    I love the title to this blog. “Carterize” needs to be added to the lexicon. Hell, Webster should find a spot for it. And it doesn’t only have to apply to presidential contests. And it doesn’t only have to apply to Democrat incumbents. Shit, any time someone runs against a horribly inept incumbent at any level of the government there can and should be an attempt by the challenger to “Carterize” the contest.

    That all said, the Iranian hostage crisis alone pretty much negates the comparison on the foreign policy front. A cardboard cutout of a mannequin could have looked stronger and more competent than Carter. Historically speaking an epic failure. It transcends politics.

    Although Obama has made a ton of foreign policy mistakes (throwing the Poles under the bus regarding missile defense, throwing the Israelis under the bus, that “Arab Spring” nonsense, no major free trade efforts, going nowhere in Afghanistan, leaving Iraq in the lurch, this Libyan consulate fiasco, etc.) he’s never come within the ballpark of the Iranian hostage fiasco. Plus you have to give Obama a lot of credit for throwing the loopy left overboard with respect to Gitmo, the continued renditions, the drone strikes, violating Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty when it suits us, and that sort of thing. All good stuff. Teddy Roosevelt would be proud.

    On the domestic side of the ledger, hmm, well, I’m not entirely sure the comparisons are not very apt. The job market today by all key metrics is about the same or even much worse than it was in 1980. The labor force participation rate nearly is identical. The employment population ratio today is a lot lower. Long-term unemployment today is a lot worse than it was back then. 3.25% of the total workforce (now) vs. 0.87% of the total workforce (then). That’s pretty f’n grim.

    Carter responded to the energy shock crisis of that embargo with retail gasoline rationing, which made the problem a lot worse. Obama responded to a credit and housing market crisis by pissing away 800 billion dollars of public money fixing potholes in Democrat congressional districts, which didn’t exactly make things better.

    At least Carter deregulated various industries. Obama took the healthcare sector and regulated it into a ticking toxic timebomb.

    Ultimately, though, Romney is no Reagan and Carter could not rely on such lock step voting by so many Democrat identity groups. Carter was wiped out and the only real surprise is it wasn’t worse. Obama, however, has got a very strong chance of winning reelection.

  9. zenpundit says:

    What raises parallels with Carter is not the Romney campaign but American embassies being attacked in Muslim states undergoing revolutionary upheaval coupled with a serious misreading of these revolutions by American policy makers and a weak and uncertain initial response by the administration to being attacked. The public statements and tweets by the Cairo Embassy were extremely inept given the context of events that day and have likely contributed to the spread of unrest. Obama I am sure did not approve these (and retracted them) but unfortunately as POTUS he has to live with the damage created by underlings.

    Is Romney an effective candidate? No. Is his campaign trying to get political momentum from this crisis? Yes. But those are tertiary considerations to the real and more serious problems of vulnerable diplomatic missions and a foreign policy of engagement with moderate Islamists in shambles for which is one problem for Obama is wholly responsible for – Bush has nothing to do with this one – and will be judged by voters on how he resolves the crisis.

  10. JKB says:

    Oh relax, Reagan put the Progressive far-Left disaster on hold for a generation. It was the peace and prosperity he brought forth that is the reason why so many have no memory of those dark days of the 1970s. It is for that reason that young and the dumb were so eager to elect Obama as they had no memory of how bad it could be. Well, now it is becoming apparent, to anyone who avoids the MSM cheerleaders.

    Obama is not Carter, he’s Carter 2.0. New, with improved fecklessness in the Islamic problem.

    As the Diplomad says, we are under attack when we should be at war. A war we could make moot in large part by saying “Frack It!”

  11. Console says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    You do realize that your entire analysis on 1980 is really only summed up by one word: inflation. That’s the difference.

  12. Inhumans99 says:

    To the folks trying to paint Obama with Carter’s brush…y’all are just so cute!

    I get it, I get it…Romney is the guy that will prevent us all from having to learn Russian, Chinese, Farsi, and what the heck, I’ll throw in Spanish, ya know…so we can communicate with our new masters.

    So cute, I just want to pinch your cheeks!!

  13. Rick Almeida says:


    It was the peace and prosperity he brought forth that is the reason why so many have no memory of those dark days of the 1970s…

    Remind me who was president from 1969-1977 again?

  14. DC Loser says:

    Three words: Osama Bin Laden. Next question?

  15. bookdragon says:

    ‘Carterize’? Yeesh. The GOP really is the old white guy party.

    I was in jr high during the Iranian hostage crisis so I probably remember more about it than 70% of the people around me, but I barely have more than a passing memory of TV images and sound bites. (I also remember the Camp David accords, which was big thing even for kids in a Jewish neighborhood). What I recall more clearly is Carter’s career after leaving office – working for Habitat for Humanity, promoting human rights, negotiating to reduce hostilities in trouble spots all over the world.

    Most people under 40 know Jimmy Carter primarily as one of our most effective and internationally respected ex-presidents. And as fundamentally good, decent human being. Media types trying to paint Obama as Carter might want to bear that in mind.

  16. anjin-san says:

    those dark days of the 1970s…

    You mean when unemployment was at 9% under Ford?

  17. JKB says:

    @Rick Almeida: Remind me who was president from 1969-1977 again?

    I said Reagan, not Republicans.

    Although Republicans and Democrats in the Congress did come together to deregulate which was a major factor in the prosperity. I was a kid but I do remember the foolish wage and price controls of Nixon. It was a hold over, both parties embraced, of the “government-guided enterprise” economy that came to a peak in the 1950s. Politicians of both stripes loved the directed economy of the war years. The fact the rest of the world was in shambles gave them a respite from reality. That reality, the failure of government direction of the economy, was coming to a head when Nixon took office and really came to crisis under Carter.

  18. anjin-san says:

    those dark days of the 1970s…

    You mean when Nixon took us into deficits as policy?

  19. Modulo Myself says:


    What you are basically admitting to is living in a fantasy world. Anyone who can look back at Reagan–the guy who cut and ran in Beirut, who kowtowed to Iran, secretly trading arms for hostages, and who supported Islamic militants in Afghanistan–and talk about the fecklessness of Carter and Obama is an idiot.

  20. emjay says:

    @stonetools: Well Obama won’t win on the “Bush’s fault” line this time either.

  21. Jr says:

    @emjay: Over 54% of Americans blame Bush for the economy.

    Try again.

  22. Peacewood says:

    Romney is Reagan and Obama is Carter? So what? It just shows that this campaign is fully up-to-date and ready to tackle the problems of present-day reality!

    By the way, have you all seen this brand new movie called “Airplane!”? It’s hilarious!

  23. bill says:

    Carter has been the Republican’s benchmark for the low water mark in US history

    not just republicans, he was horrible at any level- too bad because he’s really a nice guy.

  24. jukeboxgrad says:


    What you are basically admitting to is living in a fantasy world. Anyone who can look back at Reagan–the guy who cut and ran in Beirut, who kowtowed to Iran, secretly trading arms for hostages, and who supported Islamic militants in Afghanistan–and talk about the fecklessness of Carter and Obama is an idiot.

    Don’t forget that Reagan raised taxes many times, but still managed to triple the national debt.

    My personal favorite for one of Reagan’s finest moments: the day he described Rush Limbaugh as “the Number One voice for conservatism.”

  25. bill says:

    and, the last time a foreign ambassador was assassinated guess who was in office- yes, the jim meister. but don’t worry, nothing’s happening, nothing to see.

  26. JohnMcC says:

    An interesting angle on the “suddenly it’s 1980 again” theme is to wonder how many times the Republicans think they can wrap Mr Reagan’s mantle around their candidates. As pointed out above, that election was 32 years ago. If they invoke the Reagan legacy strongly for Mr Romney, any future use of that tactic will provoke a response on the order of — “Reagan, wasn’t he the guy a lot like Romney?”