When I ask President Carter about this blitz, he’s taken aback. “Well. Whatever they say in those kinds of attacks on political figures in a campaign, it’s not unexpected. But I am surprised that John McCain would say such things; he and I have had a personal relationship in the past.” He pauses, the mind click-click-clicking. Then he resumes with his almost Victorian diction. “Such pronouncements in the middle of a campaign are legitimately looked on by voters with a degree of skepticism. And I have to say that I am a little immune.”
It’s always been Carter’s nature to avoid the political fray. He likes to engage in intelligent conversation with powerful parties, he likes to resolve things in a mannerly, civilized way—but he doesn’t do politics, he doesn’t do down-dirty, he doesn’t do low-level horse-trading: no my-bowlegged-nag-for-your-glue-factory-gelding. Carter deals only in thoroughbreds. He insists on taking the high road, and he’s not about to change his plans—say, to cancel his visit to see Hamas—because it might somehow hurt the Democrats in 2008.
But whatever he may say, Carter—as an ingredient in a presidential campaign, as a political symbol—provides a blend of issues that’s almost irresistible for a Republican candidate to exploit, especially one trying to shore up his conservative base. “Conservative Republicans see Carter as an icon of weakness,” says political consultant Mike Murphy, who has hovered around the McCain campaign in a sometimes-advisory capacity. McCain is no doubt hoping that the American people will remember this about the Carter presidency: 52 American hostages held by students in Tehran for more than a year, a late-date rescue mission that devolved into a fiasco in which eight American soldiers died, that shared kiss with Brezhnev, a period of stagflation paired with an energy crisis, and a cardigan-wearing president who advised Americans to “sacrifice.”
Indeed, one bright spot in McCain’s otherwise hardscrabble political landscape is how Obama’s vulnerabilities can, at least superficially, be mapped onto this interpretation of Carter’s administration. “There are certain Obama-Carter similarities that make it a relevant analogy,” says Murphy. “Carter was a relatively inexperienced one-term governor who came out of nowhere. He was elected on a thematic platform that fit the times but that was short on practical points. His foreign policy was based on rhetoric not Realpolitik, and it turned mostly into a disaster. Carter is what happens when you buy without looking.”
On the other hand, given the current energy and economic crises, you might look back and think that Carter was enormously prescient. Last week, presidential historian Joseph Wheelan wrote an op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution asking, in regard to Carter’s promotion of alternative fuels, “Can we now acknowledge that Jimmy Carter was right all those years ago?” Carter also negotiated the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, a 30-year truce that has never once been violated (something one cannot say of any other negotiated peace in the region, and an achievement that seems even more impressive in retrospect). “The last time I looked,” says Jody Powell, Carter’s former press secretary, “President Carter’s favorability rating was a good bit higher than McCain’s or Obama’s or George Bush’s.”
Obama has not argued for a foreign policy based strictly on human rights (indeed, the phrase doesn’t even appear in the foreign-policy section of his Website), and as Eli Lake argued in The New Republic earlier this month, the track record of his foreign-policy advisers suggests an Obama doctrine will likely look “more like Ronald Reagan than Jimmy Carter.” Still, McCain’s Carter analogy has caused a degree of irritation and perhaps some confusion in the Obama campaign about how to handle the former president. “Look, the McCain people are just trying to use Carter’s name to scare people,” says campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro. But he distances his boss from a potential liability: “McCain will carry the Bush legacy into the future, but Senator Obama has no connection to President Carter.”
Perhaps most worrisome to the Obama campaign is the mistrust the former president engenders among some Jewish voters, especially older ones, whose support can be crucial in key states like Florida and Ohio. Carter was the first American president to express support for—indeed, the first to mention—the idea of a Palestinian homeland. This was before the Oslo peace negotiations; before it became the conventional, bi-partisan position; back when the idea was radical and unacceptable to most of the Jewish community. Carter has since monitored three Palestinian elections—Yasser Arafat won the first, Mahmoud Abbas the second, and Hamas the majority in the third—and in 2006, he published a controversial book titled Palestine Peace Not Apartheid. While Carter has strong support among younger, liberal Jews, his work in the Middle East offends many for whom support of Israel is a central issue.