Rethinking America

Trump: Jimmy Carter Redux

Is Donald Trump poised to learn the lessons that Jimmy Carter learnt in 1976?

Credit: spirit of america - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Like Carter, Trump ran a classic outsider’s campaign, railing against the culture of Washington.
  • Carter’s disdain for the Washington establishment was no pose. It was every bit as sincere as Trump’s.
  • If Trump wants to actually accomplish anything, he will need to do what Carter did not -- get his hands dirty.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter sailed into Washington and learned some painful lessons on how not to be President. Exactly forty years later, Donald Trump appears poised to learn them all over again.

Trump and Carter certainly make an odd pairing. One is a pious Baptist, who confessed that he occasionally feels lust in his heart. The other is a raunchy libertine who brags privately about groping strangers.

Carter proved to Georgia and the nation that a southern white politician could succeed without being racially divisive. Trump seems unable to refrain from putting his foot into the race issue.

Furthermore, Trump’s volatile style makes any prediction at all about the next four years a hazardous enterprise. But if there is one consistent message amid all the waffling on campaign pledges and the shuffling of prospective candidates for the Trump cabinet, it is a clear intention to “drain the swamp.”

The “outsider”

Trump ran a classic outsider’s campaign, railing against the culture of Washington. It is the prospect of Trump shaking Washington out of its smug complacency that endears him to many of his supporters and convinces them to overlook his many flaws.

The fact that Trump is willing to alienate Congressional leaders from his own current party only endears him to them further.

Trump has taken concrete steps to show how earnest he is about swamp-draining. Already he has drawn (at least for now) a line in the sand by requiring members of his transition team and administration to refrain from lobbying for five years after serving.

Carter too ran as an outsider. He was no political ingénue — he had served as a state governor — but after the corruption of the Nixon administration had shaken the nation’s confidence in its political class, Jimmy Carter was what the people wanted: clean and honest and not from Washington.

Carter’s presidency

Carter’s disdain for the Washington establishment was no pose; it was every bit as sincere as Trump’s. He kept a cool personal distance from Congress, delegating Congressional relations to (as it happened) incompetents.

He deliberately snubbed Congressional leaders, even those from his own party. (Back-row seats at the inauguration dinner left Speaker Tip O’Neill fuming.)

In pushing for a comprehensive energy policy he did not consult legislators, but presented them with a complete proposal. It was like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, his detractors thought. To make matters worse, Carter insisted that they pass it whole. (Congress broke it into pieces and marked it up anyway.)

Carter’s presidency is generally considered a failure. There were lots of reasons, many outside his control. But one of the lessons of the Carter presidency was the mantra Congressmen of the era knew well: “to get along, go along.”

Dynamics in Washington

Moral purity might win votes at the polls, but to get anything done in Washington requires consultation and compromise.

The Congressmen who eviscerated Carter’s energy plan may have been greedy pork-barrel politicians, but they were also (at least many of them) highly skilled and knowledgeable committee members.

They knew a hell of a lot more than the neophyte Carter about the nation’s energy and transportation and natural resource and environmental policies as well as about the capabilities of the bureaucracies that implement them.

“Drain the swamp” is a powerful slogan. The Steve Bannons of the world who rail against the crony capitalism of Washington insiders might infinitely prefer that mantra to “to get along, go along.”

Trump’s future

But the fact is, with his 47% of the vote (at last count) and a thumping million votes less than his Democratic rival, Trump has no mandate to drain anything.

Certainly, he has no basis to lord his outsider status over the 535 Congresspeople he will be serving with.

Most of whom were awarded their seats by a clear majority of their own constituents. And many of them have far more expertise than he does about issues like immigration, defense, international relations, and the economy.

If Trump actually wants to accomplish anything in the time he has in Washington, he will need to do what Carter did not — get his hands dirty.

Like a good swamp monster, Tump would be well advised to learn from the smart people he is serving with and unlike Carter, make some crafty compromises.

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About Brent Ranalli

Brent Ranalli is an associate at The Cadmus Group, Inc. and a member of the IBM Network Science Research Center.

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