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Why Bush Is Recalling the Jimmy Carter Years

The Running Arguments: A Continuing Series Surveying The Presidential Campaign And Candidates.

May 08, 1988|Stuart K. Spencer | Stuart Spencer was senior campaign adviser to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

IRVINE — Vice President George Bush has been reminding voters lately of the bad old days, the four-year period ending 7 1/2 years ago when the last Democrat governor-turned-President led the non-communist world and accused the American people of possessing a "national malaise."

Jimmy Carter is gone from Washington, but he and his time of double-digit inflation are not forgotten. Following Watergate, when we were all younger, the country was eager, perhaps thirsting for an outsider with a new face; voters found one of the freckled "Huck Finn" variety in South Georgia. Today, a candidate does not have to dredge up many of the mishaps of those years to refresh memories. "Jimmy Carter" is a political code phrase that puts the 1988 election in perspective and reminds voters that beyond a choice between duller and dullest lies a referendum between continued progress and a great leap backwards.

This is why Bush will not fail to bring up on occasion the Squire of Plains and his time in Washington. It is the same reason the great Democrats in the middle third of this century ran against Herbert Hoover long after he had left the White House, and the reason Republicans in the last century ran against Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy. Straw men are convenent for campaign use.

The vice president and his aides are also laying the groundwork for analogy, comparing the former President without national experience who was the governor of a mid-sized state (Georgia) and the current governor of a mid-sized state (Massachusetts) also lacking national experience. Georgia and Massachusetts have their differences but they also have similarities. As two of the original 13 states, each is long-settled and Eastern in more ways than time zone, unlike much of the rest of the country. They are short on physical frontiers and rather long on past histories of public monies used to enrich the holders of public office--ideal places for periodic raptures of reform.

Carter and Michael S. Dukakis ran as reformers from different directions, but both share the classification of "process" liberals, more at home with the symbols of reforming the political process than using political power to do something or move a people. A Massachusetts legend, former governor, congressman and Boston mayor, James Michael Curley, an observer of human frailty, said that reformers had come and gone for hundreds of years and all they had managed to change was their underwear. Curley was a man with an agenda who wanted power to do things; he was not a process liberal.

Bloodless efficiency may be a necessary requirement for city managers, time efficiency experts and comptrollers--but it is not a trait much wanted by Americans in their President. Hoover was a civil engineer and Carter was a nuclear engineer. Neither could see the forest for the trees. There is a fine line between efficiency and tinkering. Remember reports that President Carter had to approve who got to play--and when--on the White House tennis courts?

John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan, for three, had visions of a future for America and shared those visions in a way that convinced listeners. Carter and Dukakis are not of that breed. The American people want a better answer on why someone wants to be President than the mountain climber who said, "because it's there."

The people need to know what a candidate will do with the presidency once he gets it and they are right to suspect a candidate who does not provide a full answer. No matter what attractive gimmicks are employed--be they carrying your own garment bag or riding the subway to work at the State House in Boston--the voters' reaction is likely to be, "That's nice, but what are you going to do with the White House?"

Bush is enough of a realist to know that he pales in comparison to Reagan--who wouldn't? He doesn't have to face Reagan, however, in the election and Mike Dukakis ain't no Jack Kennedy either. We are going to have a close election, more resembling comparison shopping for a vacuum cleaner (everybody needs one after all) than falling in love with the red convertible in the showroom window. This will be an election requiring work by the campaigns and by the voters; in this business they don't pass out warranties at the time of purchase.

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