Posted Monday morning, July 23, 2018.
Stewart Eizenstat was one of Jimmy Carter’s top aides and closest advisors in the White House and was and still is one of his most steadfast admirers. His memoir of Carter’s presidency is an extended argument that Carter was a successful President, although, pointedly, not a great one or even a very good one. And Eizenstat regularly comes back to the fact that Jimmy Carter “the stern moralist” was at serious odds with Jimmy Carter the politician and that inner conflict worked to prevent him from being appreciated for the successful President Eizenstat sincerely believes he was. Carter made people who should have been his political allies mad, often seemingly deliberately, with his moral intransigence. And it worked both ways. It caused him to be more stubbornly conservative when dealing with liberals and more liberal when dealing with conservatives. Eizenstat himself was both impressed and exasperated by his boss’ combination of integrity and moral vanity and high-handedness. This trait seems to have actually contributed to Eizenstat’s affection for Jimmy the Carter the man while causing him to feel ambivalent about some of Carter’s successes even as he’s making the case that those successes were in fact successes. He remembers the trouble Carter put his own staff through as they worked to get him those successes, regularly undermining them and himself by insisting on doing what he regarded as the morally right thing to do rather than what the politically effective thing. But also causing Eizenstat some doubt is that he is and was more liberal than Carter and he seems unsure that he likes all that Carter achieved. I think you can sense that ambivalence in this passage in which Eizenstat makes the case that one of Carter’s successes was his redirection of the Democratic Party onto a “more centrist path”…
More broadly, Carter was the first “New Democrat”---more conservative on spending than the traditional base, a social and civil rights progressive, and an engaged liberal internationalist seeking diplomatic rather than purely military solutions. In the end he was too conservative for the liberals and too liberal for the conservatives. He departed from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal without abandoning it, and supported Johnson’s Great Society without expanding it, thus creating a new framework for the Democratic Party. This was a difficult political balancing act he could not always master in the White House, although he campaigned brilliantly as a Southerner reaching out to the northern white working class. Carter constantly had to tack between the domestic spending demands of his party’s congressional leadership and its liberal wing, and his own and his Southern supporters’ inherent fiscal conservatism---a reflection of their historic rejection of federal power. It would be left to Bill Clinton, another Southerner and a natural politician with an extraordinary grasp of policy, to deploy his rhetorical mastery in articulating and holding a centrist path for the party, better than the man who had begun to map the way under the worst possible economic circumstances---Jimmy Carter the engineer, businessman, and stern moralist.
---from “President Carter: The White House Years” by Stewart Eizenstat