Throughout the fall, President Carter had followed his strategic script: he waged a campaign that was laced with attack, but lacking in uplift. sIn the end, it was his candidacy that could not rise above his message.
He succeeded until the final days in making Ronald Reagan the issue. But in the campaigning process, as in his presidency, he left himself little reservoir of public optimism and confidence about where he intended to take the country and how he intended to get it there.
And when Reagan, in the last hours of the campaign, had eased public doubts with his debate performance, but when people were still looking for a positive reason to vote for Carter, they could not find one. Not even, apparently, those who wound up casting their lot with the president.
In one of the most significant statistics of 1980, television network surveys of people leaving the polling places found that those who voted for Carter said they did so, more than anything else, because they were afraid that Reagan would lead the United States into war.
Carter campaigned not by offering America his own agenda for the 1980s. but by scaring it with Reagan's agenda for the 1960s. This had not always been the Carter master plan. He began his campaign in Madison Square Garden in August, telling the Democratic National Convention of his vision of the "two futures," his and Reagan's. But as the campaign unfolded, his speeches dwelled mainly on the latter, as he heeded the advice of his chief strategist, Hamiliton Jordan, and his pollster, Patrick Caddell, that the only way to win was to make Reagan the issue.
There were those within the Carter high command who offered dissenting views, notably Stuart Eizenstat, the president's chief of domestic policy, who is said to have argued long and hard (but apparently not convincingly) that Carter could and should have campaigned by meeting the public dissatisfaction about the economy head on. He and others urged Carter to speak at length about why the nation got into the economic shape it is in today, why it could have been worse under Reagan's policies, and how he intended to make things better in the next four years.
"There was a very strong, positive case that could have been made in every speech about the president's policies -- expecially his plans for the economy and how much better they are than Reagan's," said one top Carter campaign official, speaking in what was left of the once-ample Carter-Mondale headquarters.
As he spoke, he was on the floor on his knees -- not praying, just making a few notes on a yellow legal pad, a posture that was dictated by the fact that the rental company had come in first thing in the morning and carted out all of the furniture. "Believe me, this argument was made loud and clear in our strategy meetings. But we just couldn't get it done."
Over at the White House, where the halls and offices had taken on a somber, funeral home atmosphere, another presidential adviser talked sadly about just why it was that there had not been more uplift and hope and substantive content in the Carter campaign.
"It's hard to make up in two or three months what we should have been doing for two or three years," he said. "It's hard for the President to suddenly become the great educator and perform the role that he should have been performing all of these years."
This was not the view of the president's chief of strategy, Hamilton Jordan, who had maintained until the very end that there was no way that Carter was going to lose the election. In many ways, Jordan came to symbolize much of Carter's problems during his years in Washington.
He was the number one insider of the Carter White House, yet he was always an outsider in Washington. He was that way by his own choice. He had chosen to remain an unconventional young man at the center of power. His friends called him confident because he had mastermined the Carter victory of 1976; his critics in the establishment of Washington called him arrogant because he would not deign to return their telephone calls once he had moved into that office that was once the workspace of H. R. (Bob) Haldeman.
In the last years of the Carter White House, Jordan remained a recluse of sorts, shunning contact with many who make Washington work (for better or for worse). And on Saturday night, he talked on the telephone -- he did not want to meet in person -- about how he was confident that Carter would win.
"Give the public that last weekend to comtemplate the prospect of a Reagan presidency and they will turn away from," Jordan said. He went on:
"You guys have never understood trends in a national election. You cover them but you don't understand them. Presidential campaigns go in cycles. One guy has a spurt, then the other guy has a spurt. Well, Reagan had his spurt starting Tuesday [after the presidential debate], but that's gone now. sAnd he's one."
Out on the stump, meanwhile, Carter was stepping up the attack on Reagan. The president had posed like a pitchman the day before, standing on an airport apron in Lakeland, Fla., holding up for the television cameras a record jacket from a 1961 recording entitled: "Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine," back when the man who would be the next president of the United States was serving as spear-carrier for the American Medical Association's war against Medicare.
Carter had always, as president, been a leader on the fringe. He never conveyed a sense of control or even understanding of the leadership role of the president as leader of the nation or of the party. He cared profoundly about doing the right thing, but did not always understand the implications of his acts or his failures to act.
And so it was fitting that he went out Tuesday night just the way he had presided all along. When he saw from the earliest returns that the election was clearly lost, he wanted to go right out and get the concession of defeat over with. And in fact, that is what he did, delivering a genuinely gracious and eloquent speech of support for the Republican who had just soundly defeated him and the nation that had just overwhelmingly rejected him.
But Carter made his statement conceding his defeat an hour before the polls had closed on the West Coast. And Democratic voters, hearing that all was lost, stayed away from the polls by the thousands in those last hours -- a fact that enraged party officials out west and which may well have been responsible for the narrow defeats of several Democratic members of Congress from California and Oregon and Washington.
Carter, in what he saw as his final act of political eloquence and decency, apparently contributed even further to his party's defeat.