In yesterday’s Walter Russell Mead post, commenter John remarked “As far as I can tell, most of the ‘Carter was actually a good president’ revisionism comes from people who are too young to actually remember the Carter years.”
I think that’s true enough, but I think we can also call it the wisdom of perspective. In 1980, Jimmy Carter was president and the country faced a ton of very severe problems. Ronald Reagan asked if people were better off than they had been four years earlier, and they weren’t. So he lost. And memories of this period—a bad period for America—are firmly lodged in the minds of people who lived through it.
Those of us who didn’t live through it, however, are in the position to look at the unemployment/energy/inflation dilemma of the late 1970s with the knowledge that these problems would go away within a few years. We know that the Volcker Recession, though painful, did in fact succeed at curing the inflation problem. And we know that though the inflation was severe, its course was basically under the control of the Federal Reserve and once the decision was made to allow unemployment to fall that fall it did. We know that global oil prices were set to fall, and we also know that in the long-run Carter-era conservation measures would look quite wise.
It’s really worth looking back at the critiques of Carter that his main rivals were making in 1980. Bob Shrum worked for Ted Kennedy, hates Jimmy Carter, and offers a very sympathetic account of the Kennedy 1980 primary campaign in his book. And to hear Shrum tell it, Carter should have fought inflation through wage and price controls rather than contractionary monetary policy, was foolishly risking nuclear war with the Soviet Union by aiding the Afghan opposition, and was too mean to Israel. This is all totally unpersuasive. On foreign policy, Reagan basically gave us Carterism plus the occasional massacre in Central America. Domestically, Reagan’s big innovation was to introduce us to the concept of giant peacetime structural budget deficits. It was a terrible, terrible mistake and we continue to pay the price for it today.
Does that mean Carter was a great president? No. Obviously, he left little in the way of enduring achievements. But by looking at his rivals you can get a sense of what alternative courses had serious levels of support at the time, and there was nothing better on offer. Carter’s horrible reputation owes to the fact that moderate presidents faced with bad macroeconomic luck just get disowned. It’s similar to the situation with George HW Bush. The committed activists on either side have no love for these guys, and people who are very casual about politics just remember them being unpopular.