Is Mitt Romney Running Against Barack Obama, Or Jimmy Carter?

He may be running against Barack Obama, but Mitt Romney seems to mention Jimmy Carter a lot.

Sometimes it’s hard to figure out if Mitt Romney is running against Mitt Romney or Jimmy Carter:

FORT LUPTON, Colo. — For President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney is an obvious throwback to another era — a stiff Father Knows Best-type who straps the dog to the station wagon and marries his high-school sweetheart.

But Romney is pursuing his own strategy to puncture Obama’s next-generation cool and paint the president as a retread, comparing him to Jimmy Carter and his fuzzy-headed liberal thinking. To the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, Carter is not just a former president, he’s a potent metaphor and political weapon.

“When you mention Jimmy Carter, that lightens up certain regions of the mind and brings to mind ineptness and incompetence,” said Peter Wehrer, who worked in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations. “That’s going to be one of the things that Romney is going to try and tie to Obama.”

Romney has mentioned Carter periodically on the campaign trail: Twice this month, he has made unflattering references to the 39th president. When asked on the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden whether he would have green-lighted the mission, Romney told reporters on a New Hampshire rope line that “even Jimmy Carter would have given that order” to kill bin Laden.

Two days later at a rally in northern Virginia, he explicitly referred to the Carter era as better for businesspeople than the Obama years have been.

“What the president has done, and I think unknowingly, never having spent any time in the private sector himself … was one item after another make it harder and harder for small business to thrive and to grow and to start up,” Romney said.

“It was the most anti-small business administration I’ve seen probably since Carter. Who would’ve guessed we’d look back at the Carter years as the good ol’ days, you know? And you just go through the president’s agenda over … the last several years and ask yourself, did this help small business or did it hurt small business?”

Romney isn’t the first candidate for office to reach back into history to find an example of a previous President that can be used to create a negative impression of the incumbent. Democrats used the specter of Herbert Hoover, and to some extent Richard Nixon, for decades and President Obama himself has more than once referred to the policies Romney advocates as a return to the “failed policies of George W. Bush.” Carter has been a Republican whipping boy pretty much from the day he left office. Indeed, it probably didn’t help Democrats very much that their nominee in 1984 was the guy who had served as Jimmy Carter’s Vice-President. When it comes to reminding people of a Presidency they’d rather forget, nominating Walter Mondale was like a big neon sign pointing back to Plains, Georgia. For Romney, there’s some particular advantage in bringing up the 39th President:

The parallels between Obama and Carter — as Republicans see it — are too plentiful to ignore. There’s a first-term Democratic president dealing with an economic recession, high gas prices, a prevailing sense of malaise following the hope-and-change election of 2008 and an executive Republicans have, almost since day one, painted as in over his head.

And then there’s the best part: If you can frame yourself as Carter’s foe, you get to lay claim to becoming Ronald Reagan.

And yet, I have to wonder how effective the Carter label really is anymore. Jimmy Carter hasn’t been President for 32 years at this point. To the extent people do remember him, many of them remember him as the guy who builds houses and goes overseas to monitor elections. Yes, it’s true that his post-Presidency has been marked by occasionally stupid comments about world affairs that have stepped on the feet of President serving in the Oval Office, perhaps one of the reasons he’s the least-liked member of the Ex-President’s Club, but he’s hardly in the news on a regular basis. Moreover, according to data from the 2010 Census (PDF) there are some 100,000,000 Americans (roughy half of whom are currently of eligible voting age) who weren’t even born when Jimmy Carter left the White House, and another roughly 83,000,000 (all of  currently of voting age) for whom the Carter Presidency is mostly a childhood memory. While it’s possible that the Carter analogy may resonate for people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, I really have to wonder if people from 18-49 are really impacted all that much by the specter of the peanut farmer from Plains.

Republicans admit that they haven’t really polled very much on the question of whether or not the Carter specter even has much of a political impact any more. I’m betting that, if they did, they’d find that the impact was minimal and largely confined to older voters. For the rest of us, Jimmy Carter is largely remembered as an all-around crappy President but hardly something that’s relevant to the nation’s problems in 2012.

Photo via Politico

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2012, Politicians, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. James in LA says:

    Romney is running against Romney. If we wait long enough, he will agree with Carter’s positions.




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  2. steve says:

    Carter was the deregulation president. If not for him we would still be choosing among a few, crappy, tasteless beers.

    Steve




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  3. Hey Norm says:

    I’m in my early 50’s and Carter was president when I was in undergrad…politics were hardly a prime focus of my attentions at the time. It wasn’t until Reagan began to scare the bejesus out of me in the ’80’s that I began to pay attention. So exactly who is Romney aiming these comments at? Old rich white suburbanites? That’s his base. The youth vote is probably thinking; “huh?”.
    If the Romney campaign continues to be this inept it’s going to be a long 6 months until November.




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  4. Now that would be a good poll … Carter v. GWB




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  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    While it’s possible that the Carter analogy may resonate for people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, I really have to wonder if people from 18-49 are really impacted all that much by the specter of the peanut farmer from Plains.

    I think you just proved correct Romney’s strategy.

    People in their 50s, 60s and 70s vote. The two most critical states to this year’s election — Florida and Ohio — have much older-than-average demographics.

    People in their 40s also vote, and although it’s true they were kids when Carter was in office they do get the analogy. Many of them still would remember their parents complaining about high gas prices. Many of them still would remember their parents lamenting the economy.

    People in their 30s won’t draw the connection, granted, but they vote at much lesser frequencies. People in their 20s hardly vote at all. People in their teens merely are rounding errors.

    Team Romney is onto something here. Axelrod is well aware of it. It’s not a coincidence that Team Obama is pulling out every possible stop to shift the debate to social issues.




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  6. Herb says:

    More in-group signaling from Romney. No biggie.




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  7. al-Ameda says:

    A fundamental problem that Mitt has in trying to “Carterize” Obama is that Carter is primarily associated with the Iranian hostage crisis and the failure of the rescue mission – projected American weakness.

    Obama has demonstrated no such weakness, and in fact ordered a successful mission to kill the world’s most notorious terrorist, a mission that Romney would not have undertaken.

    This summer, Mitt Romney is going to be running against himself, and he’s go a lot of explaining to do.




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  8. Davebo says:

    People in their 50s, 60s and 70s vote.

    True. But unfortunately they also die at a higher rate. Why the GOP works so hard to win them over is a mystery.

    Ask anyone on Madison Ave what the most coveted demographic is.




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  9. Peacewood says:

    I don’t know what you people are on about! Romney’s campaign is obviously fully up-to-date and dealing with the present reality.

    That reminds me, have you tuned in to that new cable channel, MTV? It’s pretty rad.




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  10. pajarosucio says:

    Like most things in politics there is only a tenuous connection to reality. Hatred of Jimmy Carter is part of the political socialization of any young conservative/Republican – it’s not just the people who actually remember his presidency (though they are by no means immune to this socialization either). Ask any active Republican, especially a young one, what they think of Carter and they are likely to recoil in revulsion. Ask them what made Carter so bad and you are likely to get a laundry list of liberal caricatures with the occasional reference to the misery index or how Reagan “single-handedly” rescued the hostages in Iran.




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  11. Tsar Nicholas says:

    @Davebo: What approach would you take? Everyone knows the 18-30 year-old demographic is going to vote in favor of the Democrat, regardless who it is, and by a significant majority to boot. There only are so many occasions on which you can beat one’s head against a brick wall. As people mature, get married, have kids, etc., they begin to vote Republican. This isn’t some closely-guarded state secret.

    Madison Ave. is about selling products. Politics is about winning elections. You have to play the hand with which you’ve been dealt.




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  12. anjin-san says:

    It is a tacit admission that the GOP knows attacking Obama on his record is a losing argument.




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  13. swearyanthony says:

    Of course a major difference is that Romney’s team of advisors is pretty much all GWB retreads. I am not aware of any Carter veterans on Obama’s team




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  14. Hey Norm says:

    “….If you can frame yourself as Carter’s foe, you get to lay claim to becoming Ronald Reagan….”

    Romney = Reagan. Hahahahahahahahahahaha




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  15. Herb says:

    @Tsar Nicholas:

    “As people mature, get married, have kids, etc., they begin to vote Republican.”

    I’m not so sure the GOP has such a lock on the married with children demo….

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s just an old joke.

    But you ask:

    What approach would you take?

    Here’s one idea: Trying to appeal to the youth vote. One’s political leanings aren’t determined by one’s age. Many times they’re actually forged in youth. Which probably accounts for Romney’s “Jimmy Carter” fixation.




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  16. gVOR08 says:

    Romney not only refers to Carter, he lies about Carter. Who could have seen that coming?




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  17. anjin-san says:

    “As people mature, get married, have kids, etc., they begin to vote Republican.”

    That’s an interesting claim. My political progression was exactly the opposite, in my 20s, I was a Reagan Republican.

    Then, two things happened. Reagan left office, and the Bush family started us down the road to the pathetic GOP we know today. And as I started to grow up, and gain life experience I came to see the cartoon & sound bite world of the right was hollow at the core. After the ’88 GOP convention I became an independent, and the Iraq war made me a Democrat. (It is noted that many prominent Democrats were spineless and supported the war).

    Once upon a time, the GOP was the party of grown ups. Today is is the party of aging, frightened, mean sprited white people. Are Democrats the tax and spend party? There is truth to that. I will take it over the GOPs policy of spend, spend, spend and go broke, because I am a married guy who ownes a home and has responsibilites and I know that sooner or later you have to pay your bills.




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  18. Hey Norm says:

    @ anjin-san…

    “…the Bush family started us down the road to the pathetic GOP we know today…”

    While I mostly agree I think Bush41 had some positive qualities his son 43 totally lacked.




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  19. anjin-san says:

    @Hey Norm

    GHWB was a skilled foreign policy President, and his war record as a young man speaks for itself. I don’t equate him with GW at all. But he did give us Lee Atwater, and that is a lot to answer for.




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  20. jukeboxgrad says:

    tsar:

    The two most critical states to this year’s election — Florida and Ohio — have much older-than-average demographics.

    True about FL. Not true about OH.

    Persons 65 years and over, percent, 2010:
    US 13.0
    OH 14.1
    FL 17.3




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  21. Pug says:

    Everybody remembers George W. Bush. Jimmy, not nearly as much.

    If Democrats don’t make W. an issue, they’re dumber than I thought.




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  22. anjin-san says:

    Many of them still would remember their parents lamenting the economy.

    They also remember the last Republican President leaving office with the economy on the verge of outright collapse, and that is something that happened in this century. And a lot of them are aware that if we are talking history, the record of Democratic Presidents on job creation and stock market performance is vastly better than that of their Republican counterparts.




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  23. JKB says:

    I think you’ll need to move that upper age back a bit. I’m 49 and very aware of the failure that was Carter. Energy, the economy, the Iran Crisis, plus he sold nothing but decline. I’d say you’ll have some down to 45 who remember. The nightly humiliation of having a loser in the White House is even noticed by kids.

    Carter really made me look at the parties. I’m libertarian, not Republican but the Democrats continually run candidates bad for the country. Clinton offered some hope when he appeared to have seen the light in 1994 but in 2000 the Dems went right back to the losers who are hostile to a successful America.

    In any case, the youngsters now have enough time to know Obama isn’t Clinton and the oldsters will remember what it was like before morning in America. True the kiddies will yearn for their socialist paradise. Good thing the universities stopped teaching critical thinking or they might realize that you have to have capitalism to create wealth for the socialism to “redistribute.”




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  24. merl says:

    @Hey Norm:
    Romney and Reagan were both chickenhawks, maybe he can campaign on that. Jimmy Carter commanded a missile sub.




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  25. Hey Norm says:

    Considering that the Obama the Republicans are running against is almost completely mythical…they may as well run as a mythical Reagan against a mythical Carter as well.




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  26. Dazedandconfused says:

    He really doesn’t want the debate to be about him and his policy’s, because he would then be forced to spell them out. Therefore, it will mainly be a campaign of “Obama bad”. This is just one iteration, there will be many more.

    Flawed though it be, if there is a better strategy for Mitt Romney, it’s not apparent, at least to me. He’s no Reagan, not even close.




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  27. An Interested Party says:

    People in their 50s, 60s and 70s vote. The two most critical states to this year’s election — Florida and Ohio — have much older-than-average demographics.

    People in their 40s also vote, and although it’s true they were kids when Carter was in office they do get the analogy. Many of them still would remember their parents complaining about high gas prices. Many of them still would remember their parents lamenting the economy.

    Hey, one false stereotype at a time please…first they have to get past the idea that the President is actually a foreign-born Muslim Communist before they can think of him as Carter II…

    It’s not a coincidence that Team Obama is pulling out every possible stop to shift the debate to social issues.

    Yes, of course, that’s why Rick Santorum is advising Romney to make his opposition on SSM a major part of his campaign…perhaps Santorum is a secret Axelrod plant…

    Madison Ave. is about selling products. Politics is about winning elections. You have to play the hand with which you’ve been dealt.

    Umm, sweetie, winning elections is about selling products…

    I think you’ll need to move that upper age back a bit. I’m 49 and very aware of the failure that was Carter.

    Ahh, but there is a much larger demographic that is very aware of the failure that was George W. Bush…and his ties to Romney are a lot stronger than the President’s ties to Carter…




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  28. PogueMahone says:

    @JKB: I’m libertarian, not Republican

    Really?
    Because the way you touched on every Republican bogeyman – Democrats, socialism, redistribution, universities – as you rounded the bases sure makes it look like you’re wearing their jersey.




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  29. Doug, you might be over-reading the article, which was created on the basis of two mentions.




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  30. anjin-san says:

    @JKB

    Good thing the universities stopped teaching critical thinking

    You should really avoid referring to critical thinking if you are going to make statements like this:

    they might realize that you have to have capitalism to create wealth for the socialism to “redistribute.”

    Here in the real world, much of the mind-boggling amount of wealth that vanished like dew on a summer morning under the last Republican administration had been regained under Obama. I urge you to look at the stock market the day Bush left office, and compare it to today.

    I guess the right has realized that its stock but, but, but… Obama! argument is not working, so now we are getting but, but, but… Carter!

    I am 53 and you are telling us Romney is running against the memory of a man who became President when I was in high school. Dude, you just flunked critical thinking 101.

    Mr. Romney, we have a sitting President. Face him head on, if you have the stones for it. As a Democrat, I am quite happy to have Obama run on his record.




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  31. Linton says:

    Carter never gets enough credit for appointing Paul Volcker as Fed Chairman.




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  32. JKB says:

    @anjin-san:

    Romney’s not running against a memory. He’s running against the very painful reality of Progressivism. Like Carter, Obama’s defeat will set Progressivism back a generation. Perhaps it will even go further, rolling back the strangling regulation, freeing economic opportunity, raising the standards for more than the connected wealthy.

    Now, Obama could win, then we’ll really have a lost decade if not longer. And there is the real threat of war, from China, from Russia, from Iran with the continued weak foreign policy. Although the latter may be resolved given the recent solidification of Israel’s survival instinct.




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  33. An Interested Party says:

    Now, Obama could win, then we’ll really have a lost decade if not longer. And there is the real threat of war, from China, from Russia, from Iran with the continued weak foreign policy. Although the latter may be resolved given the recent solidification of Israel’s survival instinct.

    It is little wonder that some people are trying so hard to link the President to Carter, considering the fantasy world these people inhabit…




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  34. grumpy realist says:

    @JKB: What’s so painful about Progressivism?

    The one main difference I see between Democrats and Republicans is that while the former admit we have to raise taxes to pay for all of our programs, the latter simply shut their eyes, chant loudly about the Laffer curve, and shove the problem off until the future.




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  35. PJ says:

    @JKB:

    And there is the real threat of war, from China, from Russia, from Iran with the continued weak foreign policy.

    The spineless creature that is Romney can’t even stand up to Liberty College.
    How long until Romney tries give back Alaska to the Russians and offers China Hawaii to please them?




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  36. Linton says:

    @JKB:

    For a libertarian there is a lot of hawk-ish talk in your comments you expressed earlier concerns about a president being a “loser”. I would expect a libertarian to care more about having a humble president who preserves liberty rather than pining for a president who acts all cool and tough.




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  37. anjin-san says:

    @JKB

    That’s very interesting. Did you know that space aliens hold high government positions too?




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  38. Ben Wolf says:

    @Linton: A lot of the extreme right are libertarians until it comes to liberties.




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  39. al-Ameda says:

    @JKB:

    And there is the real threat of war, from China, from Russia, from Iran with the continued weak foreign policy

    We’re currently experiencing the threat of war from Russia and China?
    really?




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  40. llama says:

    Republicans live to give free money to rich people and protect the interests of people above the age of 50. They don’t care about people under 50, and are actively trying to take as much money from them as possible, as to give government benefits and free money to people over 50 and corporations. Romney only wants to rile up the people who remember Carter. Everyone else is just a pot of money that Republicans can tax as to give government benefits and free money to the rich and old.




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  41. Rob in CT says:

    The whole “Jimmy Carter!” schtick works wonders on certain people. Like, say, my parents. Jimmy Carter was terrible because he (personally!) was responsible for that awful, terrible, no-good 70% top tax bracket. And inflation. But then St. Ronnie came in and fixed all that.

    Reagan, of course, has been built up to absurd levels over the past couple of decades. He was the most awesomenest President ever!

    So of course, for the GOP, it needs to be Reagan v. Carter all over again.

    I’m too young to actually remember Carter (born ’76). I do vaguely remember Reagan, but mostly just ’cause mommy and daddy just loved the guy. Witnessing the past ~10 years of GOP lunacy, I now question whether Carter was a even a bad President. Maybe he was an ok one trying to clean up the mess he inherited. Hmm, maybe there IS a parallel?




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