Why did Jimmy Carter fail to gain re-election in 1980?



Jimmy Carter’s administration has become a modern by-word for incompetence and disappointment. Such an observation is usually buttressed by the way in which, after four turbulent years, Carter was only able to gain 41% of the November 1980 vote, suffering a huge defeat in the Electoral College. This defeat has been taken as a validation of the idea that the nation was determined to pass judgement on Carter and the politics he represented.

However, just as it should be remembered that Carter’s position in 1976 was actually quite weak (he was the strongest candidate the Democrats could come up with and yet a change in 9000 votes in Hawaii and Ohio would have seen Ford win), the combination of achievement and contingency which marked his administration should not be forgotten. Carter’s administration was marked by double-digit global inflation, a 12% central lending rate, 18% prime interest rates, and a second oil price shock. It also saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, an Islamic revolution in Iran, and the phenomenon of ‘eurosclerosis’ in America’s major trading partners. Despite this, Carter won 6 percentage points more than George H.W.Bush did in the popular vote in 1992, and was within 2% of Ronald Reagan in 8 states, and within 5% in 16 in the popular vote. Carter almost won. In addition, his administration passed civil service reform, a complex energy policy, and legislation setting up two new Cabinet Departments, at the same time as carrying out an austere monetary policy, negotiating SALT II, settling the Panama Canal issue, brokering the Camp David accords, and deregulating huge swathes of American industry.

In this context, the question of how Carter failed to win seems to suggest that failure was an achievement in itself. In truth, a combination of issues did the 39th president in. This can be summed up under seven headings; Energy, Recession, Austerity, Iran, American society, Democratic decline, and Governance. These seven issues came together under Carter by 1979-80 to deny him reelection in a fashion that will probably never be repeated or imitated.
‘Energy’ for instance, is a coda for the way in which Carter’s administration presented Congress with a huge and complex attempt to meet the energy crisis in 1977-8. Carter’s administration did not consult with a uniquely pliable Congress on the issue, and therefore the cross-party input of the likes of Senators Kennedy, Udall, Nelson, Byrd, Javits and Muskie, not to mention Speaker O’Neill and his House colleagues, was not only excluded but antagonised. Carter essentially attempted to legislate a ‘live wire’ that connected environmental, energy and infrastructure lobbies with no support and no apparent understanding that it is Congress that controls taxes and spending. The end result was that his parliamentary party was strained beyond coherence, and Carter was handed a result in 1978 which no one wanted—a policy that balanced complicated tax credits with price deregulation.

Because Carter ignored the way in which Senators and the House traded votes across issues, he was not able to accompany his energy bill, which in the short term undermined consumer interests, with a comprehensive consumer protection bill, nor with investment in alternative energy sources. The Bill did nothing to deal with the three central problems which created the 1973 and 1978 energy crises anyway. These were the devaluation of the dollar after 1971 accompanied by the depletion of American oil resources; the rise of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries OPEC) and its cartel; and the lack of openness of the American car market to European competition, which would have reduced car and truck sizes at the same time as improving performance. In addition, Americans had long developed a model of urban and domestic architecture that depended upon individual transport, air conditioning, and wooden housing, none of which acclimatised Americans to energy conservation. Jimmy Carter turning the lights low at the White House and putting on a cardigan could not be expected to do so either.

Carter’s second problem was the severity of the recession which gripped the economy in the first half of 1980. This has been confused in the public mind with the regional deindustrialisation and decline which had begun to affect the ‘rustbelt’ states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana in the mid-1970s, and with the much sharper recession that took hold from 1981 onwards. In 1980, between January and June, the US experienced a steep decline in GDP that was almost completely the consequence of a serious and ultimately successful monetary attempt on the part of the Federal Reserve Board to fight inflation with high interest rates. In a world in which the dollar was essentially on a fiat standard, inflation threatened the global economy by debasing the dollar and thus driving up global prices. It also undermined lending and investment, by reducing the return on capital. As the lender of last resort, and as a country enjoying the ‘exorbitant privilege’ of holding the global reserve currency, America could not have simply let the dollar drop. Indeed, such a policy would have adversely affected its own capacity to issue bonds, attract capital or buy imports in dollars. Squeezing inflation out of the system was therefore a necessity; but it was one that struck Carter in an election year, and which he could not control once he had appointed a monetary hawk like Paul Volcker as Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

There are two longer-term responses to the threat of stagflation. One is supply-side reform—the removal of barriers and regulations that make business expensive, and which hamper productivity whilst pushing up prices. Another is the reduction of government spending and the elimination of government budget deficits, so that government borrowing does not ‘push out’ private borrowing, raise interest rates, or create the idea in investors’ heads that the government will be printing money or raising taxes in the near future. Unfortunately, both of these solutions were at odds with the governing orthodoxy in the Anglo-American world. The orthodoxy was Keynesian; interest rates did not matter, because Aggregate Demand was the driver of the economy. In such a situation, when demand was low, Keynesians suggested budget deficits and government spending could stimulate growth and only then allow for revenues to repay borrowing or for the reduction of the money supply.

Carter, like James Callaghan in Britain, was one of a number of world leaders who went against their parties and the centre of their establishments by rejecting this orthodoxy. As early as 1978, the president attempted to rein in the ‘ravenous wolves’ of a spending congress by suggesting that he would veto ‘pork barrel’ projects, and by calling for spending cuts. Like a lot of what he called for, these were never carried out. Carter did move, however, to deregulate the air industry, and then transportation, utilities and power. This cut across Congressional voting alliances, further undermined relations with Capitol Hill, and, critically, put Carter at odds with George Meany of the AFL-CIO and Jackie Presser of the Teamsters. Union organisation and money had been crucial parts of the New Deal coalition that had helped Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson in their electoral victories, and were critical to Carter’s 1976 reformulation. Carter had offered a New South, plus a minority-friendly individualism and a jobs-and-prices based competence that sought to appeal to the white working class. Austerity essentially melted this appeal.

Jimmy Carter’s problem at home which translated into his 1980 reelection effort was that he did not listen to people and thought that his own self-righteous perspective on politics was the only moral one around. This chimed with what Christopher Lasch has called the ‘revolt of the elites’ and the ‘culture of narcissism’ in which Americans had come to exclude other views and to remove compromise and negotiation as values in politics in favour of ‘grandstanding’ and emotionalised sensitivity. By doing so, Americans could feel as though they were moral individuals whose inner perspective and declarations had somehow changed a situation of iniquity or alarm. Early indications of this spirit were evident in the Hippie movement of middle-class draft dodgers, or by 1976 in the unreleased Ford campaign song ‘I’m feeling good about America and I’m feeling good about me.’ In Carter’s 1978 State of the Union address, the president demonstrated a form of perception as projection when he noted the new national mood of caring about self and family as a possible basis for a new domestic spirit of sacrifice and achievement in the name on other selves and other families. The values were not compatible; they led Carter to a series of declarations about the moral importance of whatever last ditch he had dug for himself at the time, which would then be abandoned in a watered-down agreement when reality intervened in a way that precluded the declaration of a political victory.

This sort of approach fitted with Carter’s micromanaging personal wish for control both as an engineer and a man—it is not surprising, for instance, that he personally approved applications for the use of the White House Tennis Courts for the first months of his administration, or sought to go without a Chief of Staff until 1979. The effects on his reelection prospects were, however, disastrous, because they reinforced the public idea of Carter as an easily offended and stubborn manager who could not work with Congress. Even in a parliamentary system, which America was not, such people are rare at the top (Edward Heath in Britain springs to mind). In America’s presidential system, in which a certain optimism and at least the appearance of confidence at the top are necessary, such people are toxic. In this context, the well-reported despair of vice-president Mondale at the president’s attitude to ‘politics’ is more than understandable. The approach practically encouraged a contrast with Edward Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, both of whom eventually advanced on Carter, and drove Liberal Republicans to John Anderson rather than into the Democratic camp.

Of all the reasons for Carter’s failure to be reelected the Iranian one is the most complex. Carter himself has focussed on his own decision to allow the Shah of Iran medical treatment in the United States as the greatest reason for his failure to avoid ‘blowback’ from the Iranian revolution, but reality is somewhat more complex. The president actually gained in the polls, and undermined Senator Kennedy’s nascent 1980 challenge in the primaries, because of the hostage crisis which saw 52 Americans captured by Islamist revolutionaries. As the later connections of the Reagan election team, and then, in Iran-contra, the Reagan white house, as well as later Lebanese hostage problem showed, American public opinion was not averse to a mixture of clandestine contact and negotiation when it came to Iran. Nor, given the example of Reagan’s withdrawal of Marines from Lebanon in 1982, or the non-interventionist logic of anti-war aversion known as ‘Vietnam syndrome’, was American public opinion going to condemn a president for seriously avoiding conflict and compromising. Gerald Ford had been criticised for being too gun-happy in the Mayaguez incident, when he gave orders to open fire on North Korean hostage takers rather than negotiate, for instance.

Carter, however, made a great and dramatic show of staying in Washington to ‘rescue’ the hostages; allowed a highly dubious special forces rescue operation, Eagle Claw, to be botched; and then found himself trapped by the media and his opponents on the issue. Whatever the undercover maneouverings of the Reagan team with regard to the Ayatollah, Carter’s behaviour was a masterclass in incompetence for which he deserved to be punished, especially as the CIA was effectively encouraging Islamist attacks on Iranian communists without extracting any concessions at the same time.

By 1979, secular trends in American society were meshing with Carter’s apparent inability to govern to create serious questions over the future of his administration. These trends are best summarised as the growth of a kind of individualist narcissism attached to a corresponding breakdown of social capital and economic value. As sociologists have pointed out, Americans in the decades before the 1970s had confidently defined themselves in communal terms as members of voluntary groups, religious faiths, ethnic communities, and private associations. Elk Lodges, Bowling teams, Rotary clubs, and a globally unrivalled example of charitable giving had defined American society. In part, the time and money to pursue such opportunities had eroded after 1973 because of the decline of the purchasing power of the dollar. This meant, for instance, that the fifties and sixties family, in which one member (almost always the man) worked, whilst supporting at least three others, a mortgage, an annual new car and two annual holidays, as well as at least one college fund, was no longer possible.

The decline of this social model was by no means all gloomy, since the entry of women into the workforce and the personal financial investment of the young in their maintenance and education were on balance indicators of growing self-reliance and personal freedom. However, when accompanied by health fads, personalised media such as Walkman devices or the explosion of radio stations, it accustomed Americans to being told what they wanted to hear, to the idea that they controlled their own lives to the exclusion of the influence of others, and that individual effort, not group activity, defined their futures. Once abortion, contraception, no-fault divorce and widespread tort legislation were added to the mix, Americans became used to the idea that they could apply technical fixes plus will to their own lives to ‘make a difference’ whilst avoiding traditional consequences and, ultimately, that mistakes were someone else’s fault.

To his credit, Jimmy Carter, though keen to exploit this mood (as in his confused 1978 State of the Union address) was deeply suspicious of it. By 1979, a ‘Carter pattern’ had however emerged when dealing with big issues. Firstly, a great and secretive meeting would be held, which in Carter’s case took place at Camp David, during which the media would be allowed to define the issue; then a TV address would be employed to make great claims of how defining the issue was, which the media would be allowed to distort; then the administration would attack itself or its congressional supporters in such a way as to fail to get almost anything of what it had claimed it wanted; then the president would change the message again. This, in essence, is what happened with Carter’s ‘malaise phase’ of 1979-80, when he dismissed his cabinet, failed to articulate his message, gave in on the matter of a Chief of Staff, and antagonised Ted Kennedy and forty per cent of Democratic delegates into a rebellion so open that they considered Ed Muskie as well as Kennedy as replacements for the president. Carter appears to have believed that telling Americans that he was out of ideas, requesting their help, and then suggesting that they lacked confidence was a bold gambit. In fact, as Talleyrand told Napoleon, it was worse than folly; it was a mistake.

Carter’s final reason for losing in 1980 was the fact that he faced serious opponents both within and outwith his party who wanted rid of him and knew how to do it. By 1980, he had united Kennedy supporters, the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO and the remains of the southern religious right in the Democrat party against him. The fact that he won 24 out of 34 primaries and 60% of delegates to the nominating convention should not disguise the deeply damaged nature of the Carter candidacy by mid-1980—so damaged, in fact, that there was a boomlet for Ed Muskie, the centrist candidate who had failed in 1972 after his campaign had apparently collapsed in tears in New Hampshire. At the convention, Carter was again upstaged by the soaring oratory of Kennedy, who managed to seem loyal whilst stripping the president of any remaining moral authority. On the Republican side, Ronald Reagan, meanwhile, used a tough series of primaries to unite his movement with the Republican establishment first through votes, then through the endorsement of figures such as John Connally, and then finally by co-opting George Bush whilst avoiding a ‘co-presidential’ ticket with Gerald Ford. This meant that Reagan was organisationally stronger, and that any division between the Republican right and centre which Carter may have hoped to exploit was minimised.

Reagan was also, as Robert Kennedy had realised in 1967, a candidate of rare quality. He had a long training in communicating his message. His humour was supportive and not apt to derail him, as that of Goldwater and Dole had been. Reagan was affable but had not been defined as clumsy, unlike Ford, and had an ideological message that was not discarded as overly intellectual, unlike, for instance, Jeanne Kirkpatrick or Christopher Buckley. Financial commitments had prevented him from making political statements between 1977 and 1980 (because such statements would have brought in electoral authorities and the Inland Revenue Service under campaign finance laws) and Reagan was therefore able, despite having been a presidential candidate since 1964, to seem fresh. Finally, Reagan’s status as a personally conservative former Democrat and union leaders, albeit from Hollywood, resonated with precisely the voters whom Carter was losing by his poor governance.

Reagan’s strength and vitality in part explains the otherwise odd campaign of John B. Anderson, who represents the final piece in the explanation of why Carter lost. Carter, for instance, refused to debate with Anderson, and in consequence, probably lost liberal republican voters who could not under any circumstances vote for Reagan; Reagan, on the other hand, did debate Anderson and won over a good many of his supporters. Though Anderson’s 6 % would not have, if evenly spread, kept Carter president, it could have switched votes in the 8 states where Carter was within 2% of Reagan, or the 16 where he was within 5%, and changed the outcome in the Electoral College. In addition, Carter’s own debates with Reagan made reinforced an image of Carter as peevish and naïve, whether because he cited his infant daughter’s views on nuclear weapons, or relentlessly attacked the on-message Reagan. Anderson, in such circumstances, offered a standard of reason and competence without negative personal characteristics that made Carter look much worse than Reagan, although the media interpreted Anderson wrongly as an indicator of Reagan’s extremism.


Jimmy Carter’s misgovernance—from his initial sponsorship of the Mujahedin, through his misreading of Brezhnev and endangerment of Salt II, to his placing of Sadat in a position where he would be assassinated—is material for another essay. In summative terms, Carter was done in by the economy, Iran, Ted Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, the Federal Reserve, and Congress; but, ultimately, his loss in 1980, which was by no means inevitable, was his own fault and, by any standard, well deserved.

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