The quick take on Gerald Ford is that he lost the presidency for pardoning Richard Nixon. Actually, the 1976 election was quite close. The pardon was a factor in Ford’s loss, but so was an infamous debate gaffe. In a garbled defense of the Helsinki accords, Ford said: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.” Carter pounced: “I would like to see Mr. Ford convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country that these countries don’t live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain.” The mistake helped convince the public that Ford wasn’t up to the job, and also help drive Northeastern Catholics, uncertain about voting for a Southern evangelical, away from Ford. (See Time Magazine’s “The Blooper Heard Round the World“ and these reflections years later by Ford and Carter in “Debating our Destiny .”
Ford’s debate debacle was simply a an awkward mistake. He flubbed one of his pre-rehearsed lines, and when given a chance to retreat, dug in deeper instead of admitting his error. The irony is that the error left Jimmy Carter looking like a foreign policy tough guy when nothing could have been further from the truth. Instead of a Reaganesque attempt to roll back Soviet domination, the Carter presidency was marked by meek acquiescence to Soviet advances and/or to anti-American revolutions in the Third World.
There are some lessons here. Party affiliation is generally a better indication of policy preferences than statements blurted out in the heat of debate. There’s a notion that the high-stakes, high pressure atmosphere of a presidential debate reveals character more truly than potted campaign pap. There’s some truth in that thought, but danger as well. Gerald Ford was a traditional Republican–no Ronald Reagan, perhaps, but also unlikely to have taken Carter’s path of acquiescence in Iran and Nicaragua. Ford and Carter’s party affiliations were far more reliable guides to their foreign policies than a silly debate gaffe. That fumble not only helped decide a presidential election, it did so based on an impression exactly opposite to America’s actual policy choice.
Yet there’s some anachronism here. It’s clear in hindsight that Ford would have been tougher than Carter, based on party affiliation alone. In 1976, however, we were not that far from the days of bipartisan foreign policy. Kennedy may have raised a phoney “missile gap” in his debate with Nixon, but at least that tactic accurately indicated that Democrats and Republicans alike shared a tough Cold War stance toward the Soviet Union. Back in 1976, there was no good reason to assume that Carter’s answer was anything other than proof that, like Truman and Kennedy, he would be as tough as any Republican. After all, both the Democrat Johnson and the Republican Nixon had been targets of the anti-war left. The McGovern nomination notwithstanding, it was not yet clear in 1976 that Republicans and Democrats had fundamentally different approaches to foreign policy. It took the contrast between Carter and Reagan to show us that difference. At the time, however, Carter was an ex-military man from the South, and his quick reply to Ford’s error seemed proof that he would stand up to the Soviet Union.
So are we now beyond the possibility of being fooled by superficial campaign positioning? I don’t think so. Hillary has been posing as a foreign policy moderate for some time now. Obama is apparently as left as left can be, yet he covers this stance with soothing moderate rhetoric. In a way, Obama is the new Carter. Carter won, despite his relative obscurity and inexperience, because he was the breath of fresh air needed by a country exhausted by Watergate. Carter’s religious convictions and seeming moderation were emotional balm for a traumatized nation. It never occurred to anyone that Carter’s foreign policy might make the first serious break from America’s Cold War toughness. Best keep all this in mind when listening to Clinton and Obama. They’ll jump through campaign hoops to prove their toughness. But in the end, we’ll get a Jimmy Carter foreign policy from either one of them.