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Gonna Party Like It's 1979

There's not a particularly good reason that I spent my lunch hour reading James Fallows's 1979 article assessing the failures the Carter administration, but I did it anyway. And this bit caught my eye:

I was led on myself by the hope that Carter might make sense of the swirl of liberal and conservative sentiment then muddying the political orthodoxy. Never did I feel it more strongly than after my first meeting with Carter, in August 1976, when he was receiving petitioners in Plains. Shortly after I joined the campaign staff, I accompanied a friend and former employer, Ralph Nader, when he went to call on Carter. From 9 P.M. until long past midnight on a steamy summer night, I sat in the back of Carter's study while Nader delivered a lecture on the way the government works. What Boswell must have felt when Burke and Johnson had their fine moments I thought I was feeling then, as Nader distilled into three hours the lessons of a dozen years. They were not programmatic, or even "liberal," points, but practical warnings about the way administrations went wrong. Carter must do everything possible to eliminate third-party payment systems, Nader said; they always bust the budget. He must find ways around the unions' guild mentality if he wanted to put poor teenagers to work and to rebuild the cities. He must control, from his first moment on the job, the way he spent his time, so that when the crises came, as they inevitably would, his other efforts would go on. He must avoid the ancient seductions of foreign affairs, and must constantly search for ways to make the people in government feel that he was looking over their shoulders day after day, encouraging, inspecting, reproving, an ever-present focus for loyalty and healthy fear.

Nader did most of the talking that evening, but when Carter spoke it was to show that he understood. With his complementary examples, his nodded assents, Carter hinted that he might come to office not only with the usual freight of campaign promises but also with the kind of practical sophistication most people acquire only when it is time to retire and write their memoirs. That is the difference with state governors, I remember telling myself in my exhilaration that night. While senators are prancing about with new ideas and noble intentions, governors see what happens when the payroll is met, the program administered, the intention converted to result. The last governor to become President was Franklin Roosevelt, and I told my friends that summer that Carter had at least the same potential to leave the government forever changed by his presence.

Two pieces of that quote strike me as noteworthy. The first is Nader's onetime role as a true pragmatist who swoops in to offer helpful advice to Democratic nominees. The second is the emphasis on Carter being the first governor since Roosevelt. After Carter, it was virtually all governors for a while. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all led states. Barack Obama was the first legislator elected directly to the presidency since John F. Kennedy held the office.

Some of us put great stock in that fact. Me, for instance. The president, I argued, was really the "legislator-in-chief," and as such, needed a legislator's skills and temperament. In retrospect, I'm not sure that judgment looks bad. Obama's scorecard is, at this point, pretty good, and if he passes health-care reform, it will be historically so. But that's as much a function of the numerical advantage of the Democrats as anything else. Obama hasn't brought committee chairman to heel, or managed to overcome the inanities of the Senate, or ushered in a new era of consensus-driven lawmaking. The problems of American government are not the fault of the executive, and they simply can't be solved by choosing better, or different, executives.

By Ezra Klein  |  September 14, 2009; 2:06 PM ET
Categories:  Government , History  
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Next: Mr. West


Great story. Utterly meaningless post, however. Obama has done nothing so far but get Congress and the Fed to agree to allow water to be sprayed on a raging fire. He has done nothing difficult, especially compared to Bush's amazing legislative accomplishments - busting dhe budget with unsupportable tax cuts, putting radical conservatives on the SC for the next 30 years, running a $1T war off budget, etc.

Since Reagan took power, the real power is on K street. Name one thing the money opposed that got passed.

Executive experience or Legislative experience simply doesn't matter.

Posted by: Dollared | September 14, 2009 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Remind me again why this health bill will be historic? Honestly, I've lost track. As far as I can tell, without the public option (and probably even with it), it's a bill that a) mandates everyone buy private insurance, b) passes a set of regulations banning some coverage denials, and c) gives a little help to lower-middle-class uninsured and some small businesses. What will future history textbooks see in this worth remarking on?

No one foresees this bill having a major impact on the huge rise in costs, so without a public option that later (as conservatives fear) blossoms into a full government insurance program, I see no way that this bill will be seen as anything but a random big bill to future historians -- unless, of course, the public outcry over mandated private insurance sinks Obama's presidency.

Posted by: Ulium | September 14, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

For some reason, liberals call everything Obama does "historic." I'm afraid they thing "historic" means something good.

Posted by: kingstu01 | September 14, 2009 4:51 PM | Report abuse

If you're interested in Carter in general, How Stuff Works is doing an interesting interview series with him -

Posted by: ohiotodc815 | September 14, 2009 5:20 PM | Report abuse

If Carter were President now we'd have universal health care. You're too young, Ezra, but he was a great leader who got dealt a bad hand by history.

Posted by: bmull | September 15, 2009 4:57 AM | Report abuse

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