A few days ago, I was at a conservative gathering talking to a friend about my dismay at the latest turns in the ongoing Russia controversy. A “collusion narrative” that once seemed far-fetched was back — front-and-center — in the investigation. Indeed, the argument for attempted collusion seemed airtight. Donald Trump Jr. was asked to meet with purported Russian officials as part of a purported Russian plan to help his father. His response? “I love it.”
An older gentleman, a donor to the event, was eavesdropping and obviously irritated. He jumped into the conversation with the mic-dropping comment that’s always and everywhere the last refuge of the Trump apologist. “What? Are you saying that you wish Hillary had won?”
My response? “It’s too soon to tell.” Before he could voice the fury that covered his face, I followed up with a question. “With the benefit of hindsight, how many Democrats are glad that Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in 1976?”
In January, two conservative thinkers, National Review’s Reihan Salam and the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, both raised the thought that President Trump risked becoming a Carter — a “disjunctive” president who tried and failed to keep together competing Democratic coalitions. Reihan and Ross focused on the difficulty of Carter’s political task and the tensions inherent in his fragile coalition. The concern was that, to use Reihan’s words, Trump (like Carter) would “try and fail to paper over the deep divisions plaguing Republicans.”
No doubt Republicans are divided. The struggle over Obamacare reveals a party that lacks a common national vision. It’s one thing for small-government conservatives, traditional Reagan Republicans, and Buchananite politicians to unite against Hillary Clinton or to join in common revulsion against leftist cultural overreach. It’s another thing entirely to unite these same people under a series of common national political goals. But this challenge is heightened immeasurably by something else that Trump so far shares with Carter — a staggering amount of incompetence.
Carter would have struggled to hold his coalition together under the best of circumstances (people forget how narrowly he won the 1976 presidential election even post-Watergate), but his challenge was compounded by his own unforced errors. For Millennials, Jimmy Carter is a kindly man who builds houses and works for international peace. But to Baby Boomers and older members of Generation X (like me), Carter is the man who presided over some of the lowest points in recent American history. Carter’s tenure was buffeted by oil shocks, “stagflation,” a humiliating hostage crisis, and a stunning act of Soviet aggression, its invasion of Afghanistan. Carter’s presidency was so disastrous that it took the end of the Cold War for American voters to again entrust Democrats with our foreign policy.
After Carter’s narrow victory, Republicans won three consecutive landslides. Democrats, stung by defeat after defeat, kept tacking right in national politics — culminating in a Clinton presidency that in many respects was to the right of both national parties today. Can anyone imagine a crime bill such as the Clinton-era crime bill passing today? Is anyone even trying to balance the budget, much less create a surplus? With the collapse of Obamacare repeal, is there any reform on the horizon comparable to Clinton’s welfare reform? Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and implemented the now-hated “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military. As for immigration, is there a national Democrat alive who’d make comments like this, from Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union address?
In true-believing leftist circles, Clinton’s presidency (aside from judicial appointments) was still part of the long, dark night of national political conservativism, and his “moderate” Democratic coalition, embodied by the Democratic Leadership Council, is anathema to the modern Left. Even today, you can find think-pieces spitting venom at the DLC’s efforts to move the Democratic party to the right. Part of the leftist ecstasy at Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 (and his reelection in 2012) was the realization that the Democratic party had elected its first “genuine” progressive of the modern era.
In other words, after Jimmy Carter’s failure, there were twelve straight years of Republican rule (featuring no less than 568 federal judicial appointments, including five justices of the Supreme Court), and arguably 28 years of moderate to center-right rule before the Left reclaimed the political throne.
What’s the lesson here? Yes, nations change and political coalitions can shift and fracture, but also that failed presidencies have serious consequences. That’s why “better than Hillary” simply isn’t an argument. Trump has to be good. Trump has to be effective. Hillary won’t be on the ballot in 2020, and she’s not the alternative today. She is no longer the measuring stick, and any callback to her failures signals that the person making the argument is bereft of a meaningful Trump defense.
Hillary won’t be on the ballot in 2020, and she’s not the alternative today.
I am certain that a Democrat in November 1980 could look back on Jimmy Carter’s failed, disastrous four years and point to individual policies or appointments that they preferred over a hypothetical Ford administration, but were Democrats truly glad to be facing the future with the Carter legacy hanging around their necks? As they spent three full election cycles trying to convince Cold War–era voters that the party could handle the Soviet threat, were they thrilled with that narrow win in 1976?
When it comes to presidencies, the stench of overall failure can easily overwhelm the fragrance of an individual judicial appointment or a laudable regulatory rollback. Donald Trump has done good things in his first six months — the Neil Gorsuch and James Mattis appointments most notable among them — but he can’t stop shooting himself in the foot, he hasn’t yet shown that he can lead his party in Congress, and even a GOP conditioned to disbelieve all negative polls has to be concerned that only about 25 percent of Americans strongly approve of the president. His honeymoon was over before it had a chance to begin.
In the face of this reality, every cry of “better than Hillary” actually hurts Trump. It hurts the GOP. Rather than demanding the best of Trump, it enables and excuses his worst. Soon enough, the president will stand on his own record, against a different opponent. It’s still early, and Donald Trump has a chance to learn to lead, but if the present trajectory doesn’t change, Republicans will learn what Democrats learned after 1980 — that you don’t want to be the political party begging the nation for a second chance.