Anybody who wants to know whatever became of Jimmy Carter should look back to Election Day a year ago. For Carter won the presidency in a way that made him heavily dependent upon the interest groups in the Democratic Party.
Under their pressure, the highly personalized candidate has been slowly transformed into a regular Democratic President - Washingtonized. In the process he has lost national standing but has probably improved his chances of coping effectively with the serious business of the country.
On Election Day 1976, Carter squeezed out a narrow victory over the not exactly inspiring candidacy of Gerald Ford. He owed his win entirely to the old Democratic gang: the South, the blacks, the poorer farmers, labor and the heavily Catholic and Jewish populations of the big Northern cities.
At first Carter tried to govern as he had originally campaigned, as the outsider appealing to all the people by symbolic actions. Hence the walk down Pennsylvania Avenue in the inauguration, the TV appearance in the old cardigan, and the famous visit to Clinton, Mass.
Instead of paying off the interests, he spoke of efficiency, truth and open government. He developed an economic stimulus package that was economic stimulus package that was middle-of-the-road, and became conservative when a proposed $50 rebate to most taxpayers was dropped. He put forward an energy program evenly split between consumer and producer interests.
In foreign policy the big stress was on the motherhood issues: human rights, open diplomacy and nonproliferation of nuclear techniques and all weapons. The President advanced to Russia proposals for deep cuts in armaments. He asked for a "comprehensive settlement" in the Mideast.
Unfortunately, events turned against the President - and particularly his constituents in the Democratic Party. Labor and the blacks were burned when the economy grew only slowly, with big pockets of unemployment remaining, especially in the large cities. Farmers suffered when agricultural prices fell.
Many Jews turned against him when Israel began resisting his pressure for a "comprehensive" settlement. The Russians flatly rejected his arms-cut proposals, and the allies jibed at his terms for barring the spread of nuclear power. In the absence of any other foreign-policy success, Carter made a big deal out of new treaties for the Panama Canal - thereby hurting himself in the South.
By midsummer it was a question whether Carter could do anything, and he overreacted. To assuage the Democractic constituents, he unloosed a niagara of legislative proposals. These included plans for increasing Social Security, welfare, immigration, farm prices and the minimum wage.
In the last six weeks the overreaction has been clear, and Carter has been chopping and changing, compromising and temporizing. He has made the energy bill his undisputed No. 1 priority in domestic affairs. He has postponed plans for a projected tax-reform bill, and put off until next year any progress on welfare reform, health insurance and a big jobs program.
In foreign policy, he modified his terms and tied up an agreement with the Soviet Union that virtually ensures an arms-control treaty later this year. More progress toward a Geneva settlement seems likely, and the odds are that Geneva and arms control will supersede Panama as the priority item on the foreign policy agenda. The more so as human rights and nuclear non-proliferation have long since been downgraded.
Carter's public standing has naturally dropped. He has been seen to waver and retreat. The country as a whole, perceiving that he is not so different from other Presidents, may be turning off on him. There is some question about his competence, and the business community shows particularly little confidence.
But he is in better shape with the natural constituents of a Democratic President. During his last trip around the country he was reaching out to farmers, blacks, Jews, labor and the big-city voters. He is putting himself on far better terms with the Democratic congressional leadership.
It remains to be seen whether he can improve the efficiency of his White House operation and delegate to someone general authority over economic policy. But if he can, he will avoid many of the mistakes of the pas and deal far more effectively with what is certain to be the prime challenge of the year to come: the challenge of sustaining economic recovery.