Democrats, who had won big in the midterm congressional elections two years before, saw opportunity but were perilously divided. Their ideological and younger left wing battled the party’s more traditional moderates, while new faces focused on winning suburbanites entered the fray with a message of more efficient government and empowerment.
Much of the electorate was simply disgusted with it all, longing for a fresh face, someone new to Washington, someone to save the broken system. This yearning would catapult little-known former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, his relative inexperience almost a plus, to the White House. And the lessons from Carter’s campaign and presidency shed light on the quest of an almost eerily similar candidate today: former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Like Carter, the former long-shot mayor has emerged as one of the front-runners by winning Iowa and performing well on Tuesday in New Hampshire, finishing a close second. Like the former president, Buttigieg grew up in a middle-class household — Carter’s father was a prominent landowner and Buttigieg’s father a professor. Both served in the Navy, Carter having attended the U.S. Naval Academy and Buttigieg having served with the Naval Reserve in Afghanistan. When they declared their presidential ambitions, both were derided as too inexperienced and thus garnered little media attention.
In response, both demonstrated remarkable self-assurance and confidence, proposing an ambitious agenda early. Both welcomed the civil rights debates that their respective candidacies engendered. Carter had promoted desegregation in his governorship and even in his Southern Baptist Church, while Buttigieg championed gay and lesbian rights, even touting his marriage to a man. In response to ensuing questions and attacks, both cited their faith. In fact, both men made their religions central to their candidacies, Carter famously declaring himself a “born-again Christian” while Buttigieg proclaimed that his faith demanded LBGQT equality.
As they launched their presidential campaigns, both men confronted an energized Democratic electorate, anxious to repudiate the scandal-tarred Republicans. Both faced large Democratic fields initially crowded with accomplished candidates — 17 in 1976 and in 28 in 2020. Neither field, however, had a clear front-runner.
In 1976, Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh made the case that he was the “most electable” candidate, while Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris prescribed a strong economic populism. Liberals such as Arizona Rep. Morris Udall battled serious well-funded, more conservative alternatives, such as Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. And the campaign featured wild cards like California Gov. Jerry Brown and former Alabama governor George Wallace.
Today, all of those respective typologies and arguments are again present: former vice president Joe Biden has campaigned on electability, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders channel Harris’s populism, former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar offer a moderate platform, while business executives Andrew Yang — who suspended his campaign after Tuesday’s primary — and Tom Steyer offer an eclectic approach similar to the wild-card candidacy of Brown.
Both Carter and Buttigieg found themselves between their party’s ideological factions, trying to appeal to both sides. Both touted themselves as moderate outsiders who could not only unite their party but clean up the mess in Washington. Each faced a challenge for this mantle, Carter battling the likes of Washington Sen. Henry Jackson and Buttigieg opposing candidates such as Klobuchar.
In 1976, few candidates fully grasped that early victories were so key to gaining media attention and momentum, the party only recently having replaced its old backroom, elder-dominated system with a more Democratic model. Idaho Sen. Frank Church, considered an early front-runner in 1976, did not campaign hard in Iowa, placing his faith in a firewall of later primaries. Today, it is Bloomberg who is eschewing the early states.
Carter, however, recognized that without much traditional clout or name recognition, his fate lay with surprise performances early, and he thus placed his money and energy in Iowa — the same strategy Buttigieg is wielding to great effect today.
After Iowa, with the order of the primaries different in 1976 than today, Carter proved adept at harnessing shifting political alliances as circumstances changed, working to win in New Hampshire to prove that he could win in the North and then focusing on delegate-heavy states such as Massachusetts and Florida. Using the troublesome segregationist and fellow Southerner Wallace as a foil, Carter cast himself as the best, pragmatic alternative to win nationally.
Heading toward Super Tuesday, where he must overcome weakness with African American voters, Buttigieg might find Carter’s strategy instructive. Needing to prove his national appeal to a more skeptical audience, he might paint Sanders and Warren as too radical, casting his strength in the early primaries as evidence of his national appeal to Americans across ideological lines. With at least some success on Super Tuesday, he could then focus on the candidates who remain standing in the most critical remaining states.
Of course, one can take such analogies too far. In 1976 the economy was suffering while today it booms, albeit unequally. Carter was much older than Buttigieg, and serving as a governor certainly prepares one better for the presidency than simply working as the mayor of a midsize city.
Still, at this early point in the 2020 election, one cannot help but wonder if the past is not prologue, if history will echo and launch a relatively inexperienced moderate outsider into the Oval Office. If it does, Buttigieg might again consider the fate of his predecessor.
Carter’s presidency proved to be rocky; he became one of only four elected 20th century presidents (along with William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover and George H.W. Bush) to be defeated in their reelection bids. Many in Congress perceived Carter as a bit preachy, looking down too much on the traditional folkways of Washington, unwilling to play the game. He needlessly antagonized power players on Capitol Hill by vetoing their pet projects. He staffed his White House with his Georgia advisers, who lacked the connections and knowledge so critical to success. These missteps made passing his agenda difficult and hindered Carter’s ability to address the problems plaguing the United States.
Carter’s ideological branding during the campaign created further trouble: both liberals and conservatives in the Democratic Party expected great things, only to be disappointed. Carter, most notably, angered religious conservatives who had seen much promise in his candidacy, as he was one of their own. But on issues such as abortion, sex education and gay and lesbian rights, as Carter sought middle ground, he provoked a growing backlash, in many ways launching today’s modern Religious Right.
Carter had his successes, but calm, rational compromise did not always sit well when people wanted dramatic change — and left him alienating just about everyone. It cost him dearly, prompting a damaging primary challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy, and contributing to his 1980 defeat to Republican Ronald Reagan.
Buttigieg should learn from all of this. Trying to please all constituencies often pleases no one. Experience matters, and he should take the advice of more seasoned hands, appointing officials with longer Washington resumes should he win office. A man still in his relative youth should at least pretend to honor the septuagenarians down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Many Democratic constituencies today are angry in the wake of almost constant Trumpian outrages, ready to battle the Republican’s social conservative base. The country is arguably divided more than it was in 1976. If in the coming months Buttigieg replicates the surprising electoral success of Carter — a candidate with whom he apparently shares so much — he had had better heed the lessons from Carter’s presidency, or he, too, will risk political disaster.
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