The election is over and so is the national Democratic era in American politics. The pundits and the pollsters are analyzing the voters who rejected the Carter administration after having brought it to power in 1976 in order to find out why. Brock Adams, former secretary of transportation, came closest to the reason. He told the press that the Carter people had turned their backs on their natural constituency—the working people of the country.
In too many areas of conflict between corporate interests and worker-consumer interests, the Carter government chose Big Business. When it came to restraining the price of domestically-produced oil and gas, Carter abandoned the federal price ceiling and the Democratic Congress went along. A major inflationary upsurge is rocketing throughout the economy as a result. When it came to the banks and interest rates, Carter did not oppose the highest interest rates in American history and the dream of owning a home was shattered for many citizens.
During the past four years, Carter did little about middle-man markups, anti-competitive practices and speculation in the food economy. Through Mondale, he even denounced the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust attempt to bring down the bloated price of breakfast cereals.
Although he appointed several good consumer protection law enforcement officials, he allowed his White House aides and economic advisers to continually undermine and chill these agencies. Never once did he issue an expression of support for his beleaguered defenders of health, safety and competition in the nation’s economy.
Carter raised expectations for progressive government during his 1976 campaign. But he ended his term as a cowering president beaten down by the government scapegoating of giant mismanaged corporations—in particular the steel and auto companies—which blamed Washington for their own failures.
A month before the election, he was advised to highlight some of his administration’s achievements, such as the Department of Transportation’s engineering development program that showed how cheaply a safe, fuel-efficient and far less damageable car could be built. On hearing this suggestion he turned to an aide and asked whether he could publicize this without appearing to be against the auto industry.
President Carter campaigned as he behaved in office, which explains why he was unable to provide voters with a specific program for the next four years, and more importantly, unwilling to do what past Democratic candidates had successfully done—pin the legitimate label on the Republicans and Reagan as the party and candidate of fig Business against the workers, Consumers and elderly.
All this is not to say that Carter could be held fully responsible for the state of the economy. It was absurd to say, as Gerald Ford said in Cincinnati on Saturday, Nov. 1, that “Jimmy Carter is solely responsible for the economic problems of the United States.” There are other forces, such as the business community, which have something to do with economic performance of debacle.
But in recent years, presidents have been held responsible for all that goes wrong in the economy from a business viewpoint even though presidents have nowhere near the legal or political authority to shoulder that responsibility. In four years, Ronald Reagan will learn what it is like to be held fully responsible for interest rates, inflation, unemployment and the impression that people and their families feel less secure that then did in 1980.
Predictions are always insecure endeavors, but two can be made with some certitude. The criticism of Ronald Reagan by President Carter during the campaign will become gross historical understatements. And by 1982, the Carter years, for all their bungling and cowardliness, will be seen by many Americans as nostalgic memories both of relative peace at home and abroad and of comparative respect for civil liberties and civil rights in America. For in the coming four years of Ronald Reagan, Americans will see the man behind the smile and the one-liners. It will not be pleasant.