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Obama paralleling Carter’s rise—and risks

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David Broder
May 29, 2008
— A year after Jimmy Carter lost his re-election race to Ronald Reagan, Hamilton Jordan, his former White House chief of staff, sat down for a lengthy interview with scholars at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.

Last week, after hearing the news of Jordan’s death, friends at the center sent me a transcript of that 27-year-old interview. As they predicted, it was of intense interest for current politics, and particularly on the challenge facing Barack Obama.


The main theme of Jordan’s interview was this intriguing observation:


“Only because of the fragmentation that had taken place” in the Democratic Party and its allied groups was Carter able to be nominated and elected in 1976. But that same fragmentation made the challenge of governing so difficult that he was almost doomed to fail.


What he meant was this: In the two previous elections, the Democratic Party was riven by strife over the Vietnam War, social policy and civilrights. It was bitterly divided by the nomination of Hubert Humphrey over Eugene McCarthy in 1968, and of George McGovern over Humphrey and other challengers in 1972.


In 1974, after Watergate ended the Republican revival, the old-guard Democrats suddenly confronted an influx of reform-minded new faces in Congress.


It was in the resulting “chaos,” as he called it, that Jordan conceived the possibility of making the one-term governor of Georgia the next president.


The “fragmentation” they discovered was real, not metaphorical. Carter won the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary with less than 30 percent of the votes, as four more-liberal contenders—Morris Udall, Birch Bayh, Fred Harris and Sargent Shriver—split up the rest.


But once Carter was in the White House, the liberals who controlled Congress quickly took his measure. They put their obligations to their constituencies and interest groups ahead of any loyalty to him.


He never had a “honeymoon” and by his third year, his presidency had unraveled, not because of Republican obduracy but because of Carter’s inability to lead his fellow Democrats.


What has Carter’s case to do with Obama? The individuals and the times seem very different. A white Southern governor versus a mixed-race Hawaii-born senator. A Navy veteran-peanut farmer versus a lawyer-intellectual activist.


But the two have more in common than meets the eye. Both were largely unknown to the nation’s Democrats at the start of their election years.


Both faced more-credentialed rivals. Both ran as outsiders, vowing to reform Washington. Both relied on generalized promises to raise politics to a higher standard than the outgoing Republican administration. Both benefited from early plurality victories over large and divided fields.


Obama gained his first and most important win in Iowa with 37.6 percent of the votes, while Hillary Clinton and John Edwards split almost 60 percent evenly. Both Carter and Obama lost several of the late primaries, but held on to the delegate lead they had staked out earlier.


Of course, Obama has yet to win the White House, but it is almost as if Jordan were warning him that his toughest challenge lies ahead when he sets out to govern against the grain of his own party.


Because Carter ran against the Washington establishment, he had no claim on their loyalty—and they easily spurned him, Jordan told his interviewers.


Because he sought to appease them by giving the vice presidency to one of their own, Walter Mondale, they scorned him.


And because he tried to flatter them by giving key places in his administration to some of them, he faced continual rebellions within his own White House and Cabinet.


This is the cautionary tale Obama and his brain trust could find in Jordan’s interview.


Obama too has profited from the fragmentation in the Democratic Party that has allowed a long shot, once again, to capture its greatest prize.


But if he is elected, he will have to solve the problems of fragmentation that doomed Jimmy Carter.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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