Obama: Another McGovern or Another Carter?

Andrew E. Busch

April 1, 2008

Given Barack Obama’s recent troubles, ranging from his wife’s disparaging comments about America to the rantings of his pastor and spiritual mentor to revelations about his association with unrepentant terrorists from the Vietnam era to his own unguarded statements about small-town voters and religion, it is inevitable that some analysts are wondering if he will be the next George McGovern. The inestimable Victor Davis Hanson, for one, has made the argument that Obama’s radicalism and ties to radicalism will make him as unelectable as McGovern’s ties to the anti-war far left made the latter in 1972.

It is possible that this analysis will prove prescient. Clearly, Republican strategists are licking their chops at the prospect of running against Jeremiah Wright, William Ayers, and “bittergate.” As Hubert Humphrey softened up McGovern by attacking him (quite correctly) as weak on defense in the 1972 Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton is validating the Republican critique of Obama. Even demographically, Obama faces the same threat as destroyed McGovern—the potential desertion of significant numbers of white, culturally conservative, working class voters.

However, there is another possibility that should be taken at least as seriously: Barack Obama not as George McGovern but as Jimmy Carter.

Despite his weaknesses, he has not plummeted in the national polls against Clinton or John McCain. Because of his weaknesses, he has not been able to pull away from either of them. As Hillary points out, he can’t seem to close the deal—and he might never, at least in the sense of pulling ahead decisively among voters. My colleague Jack Pitney recently pointed out that congressional Republicans are hoping that McCain will fill the role of Gerald Ford, a hard-changing underdog who kept the presidential race close enough to save the GOP from a congressional blowout. That, too, would make Obama Jimmy Carter.

The parallels are significant:

Like Carter, Obama is a substantively vacuous charmer with minimal big-time experience. Carter had four years in the Georgia governor’s mansion; if he is elected, Obama will have had four years in the U.S. Senate.

Like Carter, Obama has based his campaign on a general promise of change and a general posture of piety.

Like Carter, Obama is devoted to “healing” the nation after a harsh period of divisiveness.

Like Carter, Obama has suffered gaffes, but has maintained a reservoir of support that refuses to desert him. Like Obama waxing eloquent about the benighted folks in small-town Pennsylvania, Carter uttered his comment about maintaining the “ethnic purity” of neighborhoods in the weeks leading up to the Pennsylvania primary. Carter won Pennsylvania; Obama lost but retained his national lead in delegates and polls.

And, like Carter, despite his flaws, he is still the odds-on favorite to win the presidency in November. Republicans have not gone into a presidential election facing such stiff headwinds since—well, 1976. On Election Day of that year, Carter squeaked by Gerald Ford after possessing a large set of objective advantages. Obama, should he go on to win the Democratic nomination, will go into the election with at least as large a set of objective advantages.

In 1976, with the Cold War still on (at least on the Soviet side), voters knew that Jimmy Carter was green, naïve, and untested, and they voted for him anyway—barely. So anxious were Americans to change faces and approaches that they discounted their doubts, closed their eyes, took a deep breath, and pulled the lever for Jimmy. In a year that features the most severe dissatisfaction registered in public polls in decades, it would be foolhardy to dismiss the possibility that Obama will strike gold the same way in spite of his obvious shortcomings. It is entirely possible that he will struggle throughout the campaign but be pulled first across the finish line by the circumstances of the election which give Democrats as a party a big head start.

If that proves true, however, the 2008 election will be the beginning rather than the end of the story. Unlike McGovern, Carter had to govern. If he is elected, Obama will face many of the same sort of problems that Carter did, starting with the fact that he has thus far demonstrated no concrete capacity to govern. He will have excited popular expectations that will be exceedingly difficult to satisfy; someone with a 100 percent liberal rating from the National Journal and evident contempt for a large proportion of the public will have to deliver on promises of unity and harmony.

Not least, like Carter, Obama will inherit a difficult world, filled with inflationary pressures, recessionary tendencies, energy challenges, and an evolving cast of dangerous enemies of the United States who require taming. He has not yet put forward proposals that harbor a significant probability of success in meeting any of those challenges. To the contrary, he offers a Carterish stew of big government at home and naïveté abroad. We all know how that turned out.

So: McGovern, maybe. Carter, more likely. A tough race and a close win in spite of himself, followed by disappointment and danger.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.