With the announcement that ninety-eight-year-old former President Jimmy Carter would not seek added medical care but would live out the rest of his life under hospice care, the outpouring of sentiment, from pundits and the public alike, focused on his stellar post-presidency overcoming his failed one-term presidency. The media understandably highlighted his Nobel Prize for post-presidential peace efforts in the Middle East, his active promotion of Habitat for Humanity to build housing for those in need, and his founding of the Carter Center, which focuses on human rights, conflict prevention, election monitoring, and international public health. Yet it is now time for analysts and the American people to reassess his presidency.
The tendency of historians, political scientists, and pundits is to be biased against one-term presidents from the get-go. After all, the voters rejected them. But many one-term presidents, including the much-maligned Carter, were good presidents. Admittedly when Carter first took office with no experience at the national level, he was almost too honest for Washington. He initially failed to get his way with Congress, because he refused to horse-trade pork projects for his legislative agenda. However, as his term progressed, his growing experience made him more effective in the office.
Carter was rejected for a second term largely because he was unable to extricate the hostages held in Iran during the Iranian Revolution and because of economic stagflation—a combination of inflation and slow economic growth that occurred in the late 1970s—occurred during his watch. However, such criticism of Carter on foreign policy and economic policy is sorely misplaced.y
In the wake of the two-decade disaster of unnecessary and costly U.S. military intervention in the war in Southeast Asia (58,000 U.S. lives, millions of Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian lives, and tens of billions of dollars), Carter decided it was time to run a more restrained foreign policy. Carter avoided getting entangled in the Somali-Ethiopian war in the Horn of Africa and other non-strategic brushfire wars in the developing world. He wisely returned the canal zone to Panama, brokered the Camp David Accords for Middle East peace, and completed Richard Nixon’s effort for better relations with China. As part of that less interventionist foreign policy, instead of attacking Iran when hostages were seized in the U.S. embassy there, he, putting the lives of the hostages over macho posturing, first tried to negotiate their release and when that failed, he tried a military rescue; this operation failed because of mechanical failure of the military mission. Carter was then blamed for letting the military readiness deteriorate, when perhaps the obvious presidents to blame were Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon, who exhausted the U.S. military by entangling it in a failing quagmire in Southeast Asia from 1954 to 1973.
The aftermath of the war in Southeast Asia, his predecessors’ expansive monetary policies, and the Iranian Revolution of 1978 and 1979, which spiked world oil prices, contributed heavily to both high inflation and a sluggish U.S. economy during Carter’s term. Initially, Carter bore some blame for high inflation because he appointed G. William Miller as chairman of the Federal Reserve, who, in only a little over a year in the job, exacerbated inflation by increasing the U.S. money supply. However, Carter then replaced him in August 1979 with Paul A. Volcker, who, in a “monetarist experiment,” dramatically tightened the screws on the money supply, thus inducing an economic slowdown that would doom Carter’s re-election chances. Volcker, unlike Miller, realized that inflation was a bigger problem than slow economic growth and successfully bled it out of the economy. Volcker’s monetarist policies—much more than Ronald Reagan’s 1981 supply-side tax cut, which produced staggering budget deficits and soaring national debt without commensurate budget cuts—led to the “Reagan prosperity” of the 1980s (in fact, Reagan increased taxes in most years of his eight-year presidency, thus making is net tax reduction as an annualized percentage of GDP less than any other post-Truman Republican president). Although post-Truman presidents that reduced annualizing federal spending as a portion of GDP have been rare (only Bill Clinton and Dwight Eisenhower), of the ten other presidents during that time, Carter had the second-best record by this measure of fiscal austerity while reducing the annualized debt as a portion of GDP (in contrast to Reagan). Most people think that the economy was a total disaster during the Carter administration, but he was tied for fourth place in annualized GDP growth among post-Truman presidents.
In short, after a stretch of progressive presidents from John F. Kennedy through Richard Nixon (although a Republican, policy-wise he was a lefty), despite his party affiliation, Carter was the first in a series of conservative presidents since Calvin Coolidge. Carter cut capital gains taxes in 1978 and deregulated the banking, telecommunications, energy (oil and natural gas), and transportation (trucking, railroad, and airline) industries. He also began the post-Vietnam increases in defense spending after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Reagan continued Carter’s deregulation and defense spending increases—although Reagan usually only reduced enforcement of regulations (future presidents could and did resume such enforcement), whereas Carter usually changed the underlying laws upon which agency regulations were based, making deregulation more permanent.
Carter also preached personal responsibility, argued for local responsibility, proposed reducing farm subsidies, and wanted to reform welfare because he believed government welfare programs eroded the family and the work ethic. Finally, because he was a budget hawk who correctly prioritized cutting inflation over reducing unemployment, he resisted not only the policy wish list of labor unions and other Democratic interest groups but also a large fiscal stimulus that would have helped his chances of re-election. Carter was largely principled to the end of his presidency.
Ivan Eland is a senior fellow with the Independent Institute and author of Recarving Rushmore: Ranking the Presidents on Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty.
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