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Morning Jay: What Would Jimmy Do?

6:00 AM, Jun 22, 2011 • By JAY COST
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In Kornacki’s book, all this makes Carter “a very conservative” Democrat. Yet this is an inaccurate label when judged by the standards of Carter’s day, for he was obviously to the left of Democrats like Harry Byrd, James Eastland, and John Stennis. Judged from a broader historical perspective, Arthur Schlesinger once said that Carter "is not a Democrat -- at least in anything more recent than the Grover Cleveland sense of the word." But I disagree. I think the best way to view Carter is to see him as a moderate Democrat trying to update the New Deal ideology for a changing world. As he said at the 1979 dedication of the JFK Presidential Library:

President Kennedy was right: Change is the law of life. The world of 1980 is as different from what it was in 1960 as the world of 1960 was from that of 1940. Our means of improving the world must also be different.

 After a decade of high inflation and growing oil imports, our economic cup no longer overflows. Because of inflation, fiscal restraint has become a matter of simple public duty. We can no longer rely on a rising economic tide to lift the boats of the poorest in our society. We must focus our attention and our care and our love and concern directly on them.

We have a keener appreciation of limits now--the limits of government, limits on the use of military power abroad, the limits of manipulating, without harm to ourselves, a delicate and a balanced natural environment.

We are struggling with a profound transition from a time of abundance to a time of growing scarcity in energy. We're only beginning to learn the new habits and to utilize the new technologies that will carry us to a future age of clean and renewable energy.

And we face these times when centrifugal forces in our society and in our political system as well--forces of regionalism, forces of ethnicity, of narrow economic interests, of single-issue politics--are testing the resiliency of American pluralism and of our ability to govern. But we can and we will prevail.

The problems are different; the solutions, none of them easy, are also different. But in this age of hard choices and scarce resources, the essence of President Kennedy's message – the appeal for unselfish dedication to the common good – is more urgent than it ever was. The spirit that he evoked – the spirit of sacrifice, of patriotism, of unstinting dedication – is the same spirit that will bring us safely through the adversities that we face today. The overarching purpose of this Nation remains the same to build a just society in a secure America living at peace with the other nations of the world.

This is not the position of a "very conservative" Democrat so much as it is that of a New Dealer who has realized that the rules of the game had changed. That makes Carter’s position much more realistic than Ted Kennedy’s, which was stuck in the 1960s.  

Barack Obama entered office facing a situation that was similar to the one Carter dealt with: an age of limits. Economic growth over 2001-2010 was far weaker than any in the postwar era, and realistic estimates for 2011-2020 do not offer the hope of a return to past glories. Like Carter, Obama as a candidate promised something fresh and bold – pledging a different approach that would make government work better and move us past the old left-right divide. Yet rather than trying to redesign the outmoded liberal ideology for this new age, Obama acted as though it were the 1960s. He quickly passed a poorly conceived and inefficient stimulus package, as if the only problem with this sickly economy was too much Keynesian "slack," then proceeded to move on to Great Society II. In particular, he let the various factions in his own party craft the poorly designed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

This was a terrible piece of legislation in so many ways, but three major problems are relevant to this discussion here. First, it adds a new federal entitlement, precisely at the point when the current entitlement state is about to collapse under its own weight. Second, it plays favorites, catering to what Carter called the “centrifugal forces in our society” that happen to be on the Democratic side of the ledger, precisely at the point when Americans are sick and tired of exactly this kind of politics. Third, it kept policy makers from focusing on the economy, precisely at the point when the great American growth machine has again come to a stop.

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