Re-evaluating Jimmy Carter Posted by: Jon Henke
on Saturday, August 26, 2006
It's often said — and widely accepted — that Jimmy Carter was an absolute disaster as a President, but has recovered to become "the best former President". I'm not at all sure this is right — at least, as it pertains to domestic politics. In fact, an approximate reverse — tolerable domestic President, horrible ex-President — might be far more accurate.
Arnold Kling made the case for Carter in this 2004 TCS Daily (nee' TechCentralStation) piece...
It was under President Carter that the tide began to turn against "incomes policies." In fact, much of the liberal agenda of government intervention in markets was discredited by this point. As a result, Carter undertook some major initiatives for deregulation, particularly in the transportation sector.
On the inflation front, Carter illustrated Winston Churchill's remark that Americans will do the right thing after they have tried everything else. Having tried all manner of incomes policies, Carter gave up and appointed Paul Volcker as Federal Reserve Chairman with a mandate to bring down inflation by controlling the growth of the money supply.
The Carter Administration also ended with fewer controls on energy prices than the Nixon-Ford Administrations. However, Carter failed to end oil price controls completely, and on energy policy he is best known for creating the Department of Energy, a sinkhole for billions of wasted research dollars. [...] I believe that Carter would also have stuck with Volcker through the recession, and if that is the case, then the behavior of the economy in the 1980s would have been about the same regardless of who had been President. Of course, I generally believe that the business cycle follows its own course, and that giving credit or blame to a President is an attribution error. Thus, Presidents who enjoy strong economic performance, like Clinton, are over-rated in my opinion, while Carter, who suffered from the policy errors of previous Administrations and had began to undo those errors, is under-rated on economics.
Support of Paul Volcker’s inflation-busting tight money policies, at considerable political cost - GOOD!
Creation of Department of Education - BAD! but arguably (largely) immaterial
Energy Policy - REALLY BAD! Almost Nixon-Bad!
(feel free to leave additional insights into the Carter Administration's domestic policies at Henley's blog) It seems to me that Jimmy Carter qua President is best remembered as the unlucky placeholder in office when the unintended consequences of previous administration's policies came to fruition. There are many things he could have done far better on the domestic front, but most of the difficulties during his term were inherited, rather than created, by Carter.
But then there's ex-President Carter. And that's a very different story.
While Carter is often credited for his work with Habitat for Humanity and election monitoring. However, there's also room for criticm in those areas. Habitat for Humanity has been called a "wildly expensive way to help small numbers of the non-poor"; the Carter Center, while often useful, has also certified thoroughly flawed elections that provided legitimacy to autocrats, and has been said to provide "essential political cover to anti-democratic forces" (Center for Security Policy).
Let's leave that alone, though. The intentions are noble, whether the results are uniformly helpful or not.
No, as an ex-President, Jimmy Carter's most notable stands have been alongside tyrants. Not as necessary realpolitik compromises, but in an apparently-genuine belief that the tyrants deserve better treatment from the US. A few brief, but not comprehensive, examples...
"After the Gulf War, Saudi Arabia was mad at Arafat, because the PLO chief had sided with Saddam Hussein. So Arafat asked Carter to fly to Riyadh to smooth things over with the princes and restore Saudi funding to him — which Carter did." — Jay Nordlinger [Carter also "served the PLO head [Arafat] as PR adviser and speechwriter."]
Jimmy Carter, speaking of (and to) brutal Yugoslavian strongman Marshall Tito: "This is a world leader who has led his people and protected their freedom almost for the last 40 years." Yes, that Marshall Tito. He also said Tito was "a man who believes in human rights", if you can believe it. (actually, he was still President during this one)
In 1994, Jimmy Carter was sent by the Clinton administration to conduct negotiations with North Korea. As Chris Suellentrop noted in Slate, Carter "conducted some free-lance diplomacy, this time on CNN. After meeting with Kim Il Sung, Carter went live on CNN International without telling the administration. His motive: Undermine the Clinton administration's efforts to impose U.N. sanctions on North Korea." Suellentrop also observed that, according to Carter biographer Douglas Brinkley, "a Clinton Cabinet member referred to Carter as a "treasonous prick" for his behavior."
During the lead-up to the 1991 Gulf War, Jimmy Carter went even farther, "conducting a guerrilla foreign policy operation" in an attempt to "undermine the foreign policy of America's democratically elected president". Carter wrote letters to "the heads of state of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council" urging them to "drop their support for Bush's proposed military solution" and even "to oppose the impending military action".
As the Baseball Crankonce put it, "Carter may not be on the other side, but he has repeatedly and consistently shown up to offer his help to the other side in such a broad variety of international controversies that you can't help but wonder what on earth the man does think he's doing."
Jimmy Carter deserves a re-evaluation. As a President, he wasn't as bad as he's often been remembered; a tolerable placeholder who did little damage, perhaps, which is more than can be said of many Presidents. As a former President, however, Jimmy Carter has been a relentless disaster.