Beware Political Caricatures

Let’s play word association. Ready? “Jimmy Carter.” Chances are you thought “failed president.” Or “weak.” Or “soft liberal.” Or maybe “better ex-president than president.” The common thread is failure. Jimmy Carter was a weak, indecisive, ineffectual liberal who failed.

It’s a simple and clear image. We have similarly simple and clear images of most presidents and some prime ministers. Pundits and politicians routinely deploy them when they debate current affairs – as Mitt Romney did when he belittled Barack Obama’s decision to order the mission that killed Osama bin Laden by saying that any president, “even Jimmy Carter,” would have done the same.

And that’s a problem. Because these images are far too simple and clear. They are caricatures. They obscure far more reality than they reveal – and thus encourage us to draw the wrong conclusions about what we should do today.

The classic demonstration is Ronald Reagan and the line that crystallizes his image as a government cutting, laissez faire conservative: “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

Republicans revere Reagan and they treat that line as if Moses brought it down from the mountain. The same is true of many Canadian Conservatives.

“Government is the problem.” It is so. Thus spake Reagan.

But Reagan did not spake thus. What Reagan said, in his 1981 inaugural address, was this: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” At the time, inflation was out of control and the economy had plunged into an awful recession. Reagan was saying that in order to deal with those particular circumstances, government had to be reined in. He was not declaring that government is everywhere and always the problem.

Curiously enough, someone who actually would have agreed with what Reagan said that day, to a degree, was Jimmy Carter.

That’s right, Jimmy Carter, the president recently summed up by a moderate Atlantic writer as the archetype of the “big-spending, weak-kneed liberal who can’t get the economy turned around.”

Carter was elected in 1976 promising to balance the budget, and in the first three years of his ad-ministration he shrank the deficit by more than 50 per cent in inflation-adjusted dollars. The severe economic slide that started in 1979 undid that progress but Carter kept cutting federal spending, both to keep the deficit from getting out of control and to fight the inflation that was devastating the economy – which is why Carter would have agreed, to an extent, that “government is the problem.”

Hawkishness on inflation was, in fact, a central characteristic of the Carter presidency. Carter appointed Paul Volcker chairman of the Federal Reserve, and he supported him even when Volcker’s policies were strangling both the economy and Carter’s re-election chances. Reagan did the same. As a result, inflation was beaten – a joint victory for Carter and Reagan, although the credit almost always goes to Reagan alone.

Another hallmark of the Reagan era was deregulation. Just like the conquest of inflation, it began under the Carter administration.

As for Carter’s reputation for weakness abroad, it comes mostly from his cuts to defence spending and the twin disasters of 1979, the Tehran hostage-taking and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (The peace deal Carter brokered between Israel and Egypt also came to fruition in 1979. But for some odd reason, the most successful American Middle East policy ever is seldom recalled or credited to Carter.)

Few remember now that when Carter took office, the vast majority of Americans wanted the military to be cut. The unrest in 1979 caused a complete reversal of opinion and Carter responded by announcing major increases in military spending. He backed the development of the MX missile. He supported the stealth bomber program. And he signed Presidential Directive 59, which aggressively, even dangerously, expanded American doctrine to permit the use of limited nuclear strikes on the battlefield.

Then there’s Iran. If anything cemented the Carter image, it was his impotence when American embassy staff were taken hostage. But Carter did as much as any president could have done, including ordering the most ambitious and complex commando raid ever attempted (which ended badly, through no fault of Carter’s). And yet when Mitt Romney sneered that “even Jimmy Carter” would have ordered the mission to take out bin Laden, no one found the comment utterly bizarre.

Ultimately, Carter did lose office, so it’s not entirely wrong to attach “failure” to his name. But a critical reason for his loss was the rebellion of the Democratic lion Ted Kennedy, who rallied liberals alienated by Carter’s conservative policies on health care, inflation, defence and government spending. That fact alone should immolate the image of Carter as a “weak liberal.”

But it doesn’t. Because facts have so little to do with the popular images that inform our political de-bates. Which is why, 32 years after Carter’s defeat, the Republican presidential campaign has worked hard to tie Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter in the public’s mind. It wasn’t the real Jimmy Carter they were invoking. It was the caricature.

It is also why there was a certain justice when Mitt Romney’s campaign was torpedoed by his now-infamous comments about “the 47 per cent.” The video was obtained thanks to dogged work by James Carter IV. Yes, that’s the president’s grandson.

“James: This is extraordinary,” the original Jimmy Carter said in a private email, The Associated Press reported. “Congratulations! Papa.”