“The worst president since Jimmy Carter.”
You see a lot of this stuff if you regularly read conservative comments, like I do. But as a conservative writer, I think it’s unfair to the 39th president. I think it’s time to say good words for Carter. And if some of his accomplishments are in stark contrast to his only 18-year-old successor, President Joe Biden, well, draw your own conclusions.
I begin by noting that Carter came to the presidency with almost no relevant experience. For voters in the mid-1970s, this was a feature, not a bug.
Two of the most experienced men to become president – Lyndon Johnson, with a quarter century in Congress, and Richard Nixon, a prominent politician for 21 years – had, in the opinion of voters, lost their confidence in Vietnam and Watergate.
Their successor, Gerald Ford, with his own 25 years in Congress, nearly lost the Republican nomination to Ronald Reagan – an eight-year California governor who slipped on his years of reading and writing about national politics. He then lost the presidency to a former Georgia governor with a single term who retained Democratic candidates during what turned out to be the very Democratic year of 1974.
What Carter brought to the White House was a willingness to adapt to events and change his views. Coming from the segregation of southern Georgia, he installed a portrait of Martin Luther King in the Georgia Capitol, leaving segregation behind and endorsing the Civil Rights Revolution.
As a presidential candidate, he faced the previously unbeatable George Wallace in the South, and beat him 34% to 31% in Florida. Perhaps there is a lesson here for Republicans who want to be president but are reluctant to face Donald Trump.
On domestic politics, unlike Biden, who already had four years in the Senate when he was sworn in, Carter refused to support his party’s most left-wing positions. He signed the tax bill that included reducing the capital gains tax of former Wisconsin Republican Representative William Steiger from 49% to 25% – a growth stimulator in the decades to come.
Equally important, he backed deregulation, with considerable backing from Ralph Nader and Ted Kennedy. Alfred Kahn, named by Carter, pushed through airline deregulation, which turned luxury air travel into a way for the masses to vacation and stay in touch with distant family and friends.
Carter supported the Staggers Act, passed by a strong Democratic Congress in 1980, which deregulated railroad fares. He also supported the deregulation of trucking. Most Americans today don’t realize it, but the deregulations of the Carter era reduced the prices of goods of all kinds at enormous cost. This is the main reason why the prices of private sector products such as food and clothing have fallen in real terms over the past 40 years, while the prices of public sector products such as health care and higher education has skyrocketed.
Carter also, over time, solved two of the biggest problems. Inflation has been raging since Nixon abolished the peg to gold one weekend in August in 1971 and particularly during the oil shocks imposed on the Middle East in 1973 and 1979. Inflation reaching 13% in July 1979, Carter retired his former member of the Federal Reserve and installed official and appointed by Nixon Paul Volcker.
In the following years, Volcker crowded out inflation by keeping interest rates high, even during a severe recession. Reagan deserves credit for supporting him, but Carter deserves credit for naming him.
Another achievement of Carter was the execution of a turnaround in foreign policy. Conservatives scoffed when, days after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter said his “The opinion of Russians has changed more drastically in the past week than even in the previous two and a half years.”
But he changed not only his mind but also his policy, ordering a sharp increase in defense spending. Reagan and Caspar Weinberger have increased spending even more, and a decade later it is the collapse of the Soviet Union and victory in the Cold War. Carter deserves some of the credit for it.
What about the hostage crisis in Iran? There is a lot to criticize about Carter’s policy toward Iran, but it’s important to put it in context. Iran’s hostage-taking violated the first principle of international law – diplomatic immunity. The United States had the right to treat it as an act of war.
But four years after the fall of Saigon, the Americans, who in a decade had lost 58,000 in Vietnam (against 4,500 in Iraq and 2,200 in Afghanistan in 20 years), had no appetite for military reprisals. They tied yellow ribbons around the trees, after a popular song about a criminal about to be released from prison.
Few, if any, conservatives echoed what I remember as Pat Moynihan’s comment that we should “Bring fire and brimstone to the gates of Tehran. “ Carter ordered a possibly too complex hostage rescue mission, which failed after too many helicopters became inoperative.
The contrast is stark between Carter, who became president with minimal relevant experience, and Biden, who spent 44 years in the Senate and as vice president. Carter pushed for innovative policies with bipartisan support. Biden didn’t. Carter learned on the job and changed policies in response to events. From Biden, we have so far seen only stubborn persistence.
Carter has been a past president for 40 years – the longest in history – constructive in charitable work but not, in my opinion, in foreign policy interventions. He is the only president to have reached the age of 96, and on October 1, he will be 97. Happy birthday, Mr. President.