| Mitt uses Carter as campaign weapon|
By: Reid J. Epstein
May 12, 2012 06:58 AM EDT
| FORT LUPTON, Colo. — For President Barack Obama, Mitt Romney is an obvious throwback to another era — a stiff Father Knows Best-type who straps the dog to the station wagon and marries his high-school sweetheart.|
But Romney is pursuing his own strategy to puncture Obama’s next-generation cool and paint the president as a retread, comparing him to Jimmy Carter and his fuzzy-headed liberal thinking. To the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, Carter is not just a former president, he’s a potent metaphor and political weapon.
“When you mention Jimmy Carter, that lightens up certain regions of the mind and brings to mind ineptness and incompetence,” said Peter Wehrer, who worked in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations. “That’s going to be one of the things that Romney is going to try and tie to Obama.”
Romney has mentioned Carter periodically on the campaign trail: Twice this month, he has made unflattering references to the 39th president. When asked on the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden whether he would have green-lighted the mission, Romney told reporters on a New Hampshire rope line that “even Jimmy Carter would have given that order” to kill bin Laden.
Two days later at a rally in northern Virginia, he explicitly referred to the Carter era as better for businesspeople than the Obama years have been.
“What the president has done, and I think unknowingly, never having spent any time in the private sector himself … was one item after another make it harder and harder for small business to thrive and to grow and to start up,” Romney said.
“It was the most anti-small business administration I’ve seen probably since Carter. Who would’ve guessed we’d look back at the Carter years as the good ol’ days, you know? And you just go through the president’s agenda over … the last several years and ask yourself, did this help small business or did it hurt small business?”
The parallels between Obama and Carter — as Republicans see it — are too plentiful to ignore. There’s a first-term Democratic president dealing with an economic recession, high gas prices, a prevailing sense of malaise following the hope-and-change election of 2008 and an executive Republicans have, almost since day one, painted as in over his head.
And then there’s the best part: If you can frame yourself as Carter’s foe, you get to lay claim to becoming Ronald Reagan.
It’s unclear whether sticking Obama with a Carter label is an effective campaign tactic. A senior Romney aide said the campaign has not poll-tested Carter’s name as a campaign touchstone and warned not to put too much stock in Carter as a Republican boogeyman.
A whole generation of young voters who were born after 1980 aren’t familiar with the former Democratic president — and what they do know, they might like as Carter now works to alleviate global poverty and disease. On the other hand, middle-aged and older voters — who vote in larger numbers — might identify with the idea of Obama as a hapless president.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Romney’s chief Capitol Hill recruiter and a key surrogate on the campaign trail, said the Carter name gives him flashbacks to tough times with his father, who was briefly married to Kitty Dukakis.
“Even though I was a little squirt, I still remember sitting in line with my dad trying to fill up our car with gas,” Chaffetz, 45, said this week. “I remember that. That’s when we started the Department of Energy. Talk about an agency that’s fundamentally failed. We had a major oil crisis, terrorism was looming, our military was getting weaker. The economy was sour. Unfortunately, it’s the ideal parallel.”
But even if voters don’t identify Obama explicitly with Carter, Romney seems to hope they see Obama as belonging to a generation of old Democrats that has been firmly rejected.
Recently, in Michigan, Romney began what aides described as an effort to cleave the Democratic vote, separating centrists — whom the Republican identified with the prosperous 1990s Clinton era — from liberals like Carter and Obama, whose reelection campaign would not comment for this story.
Before Romney’s remarks, a senior aide told reporters that the campaign aimed to “frame up the race a little bit about the past versus the future,” with Carter and Obama as emblematic of past economic policies and Romney and Clinton representing the future.
“President Clinton in 1992 ran as a New Democrat,” the aide said. “President Obama has really turned his back on all that. He’s not run as a New Democrat, he’s run as an old Democrat with old-school liberal solutions.”
The aide didn’t mention Carter during the brief conference call with the traveling press, but the implication was clear.
“There’s a very clear difference in the approach of where Clinton was taking the party back in 1992 and where President Obama has taken the country over the last four years.”
Here, at an oil-drilling site in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, Romney twice declared that Obama’s energy policies are “of the past.”
“I happen to think that the president’s policies are shaped by a perspective that’s old and outdated,” he said. “His policies are rooted in perspectives of the past. His ideas about energy are simply out of date. His other policies flow from the thinking of the liberals from years ago.”
It’s not too hard to figure out to whom Romney is referring.
No one younger than 45 would have been even a teenager while the Georgia peanut farmer was in the White House, and five presidents have served since Carter lost the 1980 election.
But among older Republican voters — Romney’s base even in the primaries — the Carter line works.
In May 2011, after the bin Laden killing, Wehrer wrote in Commentary magazine that Obama would no longer be painted as weak like Carter.
“The specter of Jimmy Carter was beginning to haunt the Obama administration,” he wrote then. “For now, at least, that narrative is stopped in its tracks.”
But this week, Wehrer said touting a failed president from the other party is fair game in campaigns.
“Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover for decades after he had been president,” Wehrer said. “Carter mentioned Hoover as well in ’76. These things have a long half-life, failed presidents have a long half-life.”
Republicans began making unflattering comparisons of Obama to Carter almost as soon as the Chicagoan was sworn in.
In February 2009, less than a month after Obama’s inauguration, Newt Gingrich took to the “Today” show to suggest the stimulus proposal made the 44th president like the 39th.
“I think he is in real danger of becoming Jimmy Carter instead of Ronald Reagan,” Gingrich said.
Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich aide who spoke for the former House speaker’s super PAC during the presidential primary, said the allusions to the Carter years aren’t aimed at young voters, in part because they don’t matter as much as older ones.
“Not that you want to give up the under-40s, but we know that people over 50 vote five times as often as people 24 and under,” said Tyler, who is 47. “To the average Republican who does remember him, Carter is shorthand for weakness in foreign policy, appeasement and policies that lead to joblessness, inflation, higher taxes, more regulation, more government. It’s a quick shorthand, and it’s a way of saying those things failed.”
Carter’s office declined requests to comment for this story, but Leo Ribuffo, a George Washington University professor who is writing a book titled "The Limits of Moderation: Jimmy Carter and the Ironies of American Liberalism,” said it almost doesn’t matter that the most negative picture of the Carter era is embellished, just as Carter’s attempts to tether Gerald Ford to Hoover weren’t grounded in the facts.
“It’s basically partisan and wrong,” Ribuffo said. “Historians know that Hoover didn’t sit around and starve. He was an activist president. And historians know that Carter was more of a hawk, but historians don’t have cable news shows.”