I’ve written before than Jimmy Carter’s pious, sanctimonious, and off-putting public persona may have caused conservatives to miss the fact that he wasn’t that godawful a president. Holman Jenkins has a column in today’s WSJ, “If Obama Had Carter’s Courage,” that provides a point of evidence in Carter’s favor.
In Mr. Carter’s day, bankruptcies were scything through the railroad sector, hurtling toward a rendezvous with nationalization. Conrail, an amalgam of failed Northeastern lines, had already been taken over and analysts foresaw a $300 billion bill (in today’s dollars) in the likely prospect that Washington would soon have to operate the rest of the nation’s freight railroads….
comprehensive federal regulation had only distorted the industry’s pricing, driven away investment, and made competitive adaptation impossible. But the argument had a new ring now that Washington would have to bear the political risk of operating and subsidizing the nation’s rail services.
It still took some doing on Mr. Carter’s part. When the bill stalled, a hundred phone calls went from the White House to congressmen, including 10 by Mr. Carter in a single evening. The bill essentially no longer required railroads to provide services at a loss to please certain constituencies. It meant going up against farmers, labor, utilities, mining interests, and even some railroads — whereas Mr. Obama’s auto bailout tries to appease key lobbies like labor and greens, which is why it can’t work.
I should note also, that in his updated, libertarian ranking of the presidents, Ivan Eland ranks Jimmy as one of the least bad modern presidents.
The obvious answer to John McCain’s recent, lame, anti-Obama soundbite, “Carter’s Second Term,” is that while Carter was no Gerald Ford, at least the man wasn’t as bad as Richard Nixon, the nearest recent historical parallel to George W. Bush. Though even that may be unfair to Nixon, who after all did not start the Vietnam War, and at least made peace with China. Moreover, despite his extravagant theories of executive power, Nixon at least disclaimed the right to lock up American citizens without charges or a trial, signing the Non-Detention Act of 1971. For the story behind that act, which the Bush legal team considers unconstitutional, see this piece [.pdf] by the indispensible Louis Fisher.
His administration deregulated trucking and air travel, market-friendly reforms that had huge, beneficial effects on American economy and life. (I’m old enough to remember when flight was for business travelers and the rich.) He appointed Paul Volcker to the Fed and backed his tight-money policies right through an election year.
I’m not convinced, nor is Jim, entirely. He runs through some of Carter’s bad points, like his godawful energy policy and his creation of two additional cabinet departments (one more than Reagan). I’d add the Desert One operation which, to read Mark Bowden’s account, was the craziest military operation approved by a president since the Bay of Pigs. Of course, Jimmuh’s unbearable sanctimony and self-righteousness shouldn’t count, but I’m sure it’s colored my assessment. But the fact that people reflexively rank Carter among the worst of the modern presidents says something about the bias toward presidential activism that warps our public debate.