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.To which Drum responded:
Carter was president during a difficult period, and politically he turned out to be fairly tone deaf and ineffective. As someone who didn't vote for his reelection in 19801 I won't defend him as a great president, but substantively he left behind more in the way of enduring achievements than most people give him credit for. [the footnote explains that Drum voted for Anderson].To which I'll respond: hogwash. Jimmy Carter was a terrible president, with a deservedly terrible reputation.
To fully understand Jimmy Carter's failure, it's important to go back and think about partisan and ideological balance over the long run of American politics. If one begins in 1932, what one finds is that most of the time the United States has had divided government -- either partisan divided government, or ideological divided government, or both. Conservative Republicans have controlled the White House, the House, and the Senate really only during the George W. Bush years, with a real working majority (but not a supermajority in the Senate) only in 2003-2006. Liberal Democrats controlled all three during the first few years of FDR's presidency, during the first half of the 1960s, during Bill Clinton's first two years, and right now, although again without Senate supermajorities during the Clinton and, less so, the Obama years. And during Jimmy Carter's presidency. After the 1974 elections, liberals maintained huge majorities in both House and Senate (with 61 Senators in Carter's first two years, and 58 in the last two years).
In the first two of these periods liberals passed the New Deal and Great Society. Clinton tried, and Obama is trying, to accomplish the primary unfinished goal of American liberals, universal health care. Carter did not, at least not until he was dragged to it by the threat of a primary challenge from Ted Kennedy. Moreover, Carter basically failed to attempt to accomplish any of the main goals of Democratic-oriented groups. He wasn't defeated; he just didn't try. Did Carter ever advance any serious labor legislation? I don't think so -- and labor, of course, was a lot healthier and a lot more central to the Democrats in the 1970s than it was in the 1990s or during Obama's time. I think the proper way to look at Carter is that 1997-1980 were the great lost opportunity for American liberals.
Instead, Carter spend a lot of time and political energy on procedural reforms that, at best, were unlikely to yield any political rewards. Things like "zero-based budgeting," or executive branch reorganization.
Carter was also quick to take on the interests of Democratic Members of Congress (he fought a bitter battle over "pork" in the form of Western water projects that Hill Democrats wanted) but indifferent or hostile to their concerns, or the concerns of Democratic-oriented interest groups. Thus when hard times came, few had any reason to stay loyal to him. Carter seemed to think of such concerns as "politics," and as such not really a legitimate part of policy-making. Here's the late Nelson W. Polsby on Carter:
Policy-making, to Carter, meant identifying problems and applying rational intelligence to the formulation of good solutions. If possible, solutions should strike at the root of problems, should be comprehensive and basic. If they were the right solutions, they would commend themselves to Congress, and if not to Congress, then he could appeal over the heads of Congress to the people...By adhering to these beliefs, Carter proved himself to be a man strongly in the grip of a coherent theoretical model of political leadership...[I]t reminded observers not only of the rigidities of that other engineer-President, Herbert Hoover, but also those of that great constitutional tinkerer and admirer of the Prussian civil service, Woodrow Wilson.Polsby shows the ways this attitude led mostly to disaster for Carter, and concluded:
...[D]espite the tendency of President Carter to emphasize the contrasts between Washington and grass roots America, there were, and are, intimate connections between members of Congress and interest group leaders who do business in Washington and their constituents out around the country. President Carter not only underestimated these connections, but he overestimated his own capacity to reach out over the heads of the rest of the Washington community directly to the American people. He did in fact reach the American people directly, through television, but the message as received would unavoidably be subjected to interpretation, and that is where a President needs friends and allies...[T]here was very little [Democrats] could do to improve the image of a President so determined to do business in a way that defied the logic of a constitutional design that demands cooperation, coordination, and conciliation among the branches of government (Polsby, Congress and the Presidency, 4th ed., 57-68).Basically, Carter was really bad at being president, and because he was so lousy at being president he wound up being very unpopular, and because of that even many of the good policies he did develop became unpopular because anything associated with him became unpopular.