Former President Jimmy Carter had some interesting things to say about his 1980 defeat to Ronald Reagan; he could have won if he was more ‘manly,’ or something. Carter admitted that the Iranian hostage crisis, which lasted 444 days, heavily contributed to his defeat. But added that if he had gone to war with Iran, he would have been re-elected (via Washington Examiner):
Former President Jimmy Carter claimed Wednesday that he would have been re-elected and beaten Ronald Reagan in 1980 if had been more “manly” in his dealings with Iran.
Interviewed by the show “CNBC Meets,” Carter repeated his belief that the failed mission to free American hostages held in Tehran killed his chances, but then added that had he gone to war, America would have rewarded him with a second term in 1980.
“I could’ve been re-elected if I’d taken military action against Iran, shown that I was strong and resolute and, um, manly and so forth,” said the former president, who has established himself as a world human rights leader.
“I could have wiped Iran off the map with the weapons that we had, but in the process a lot of innocent people would have been killed, probably including the hostages and so I stood up against all that all that advice, and then eventually my prayers were answered and every hostage came home safe and free. And so I think I made the right decision in retrospect, but it was not easy at the time.”
We can’t ponder “what ifs,” but certainly his standing on foreign policy would have been better with Americans during this time. But we cannot ignore the economic woes America faced in the late 1970s.
Contrary to popular belief, Carter never used the word “malaise” in his Crisis of Confidence address. According to liberals, the address was “popular,” which boosted his approval ratings by 11 points. But even the left-leaning American Prospect wrote in 2009 that Carter fumbled the ball as he approached the end zone [emphasis mine]:
[I]n fact, the speech worked. It prompted an overwhelmingly favorable response. Carter received a whopping 11 percent rise in his poll numbers. The mail that poured into the White House testified that many citizens felt moved by the speech. One man wrote to Carter, “You are the first politician that [sic] has said the words that I have been thinking for years. Last month I purchased a moped to drive to work with. I plan to use it as much as possible, and by doing so I have cut my gas consumption by 75%.”
In the end, Jimmy Carter did blow the situation, but it wasn’t because of the speech itself. Rather, he blew the opportunity that the speech opened up for him. Just two days after July 15, Carter fired his Cabinet, signifying a governmental meltdown. The president’s poll numbers sank again as confusion and disarray took over. Carter could give a great speech, but there were two things he couldn’t manage: to govern well enough to make his language buoy him or to find a way to yoke the energy crisis with concrete civic re-engagement initiatives. Though Americans were inspired by the speech, many were still stumped as to what was expected of them. As Time magazine described it: “The President basked in the applause for a day and then set in motion his astounding purge, undoing much of the good he had done himself.”
In the spirit of George Will, who likes to add baseball anecdotes into his political commentary, this speech sort of ended like the pitch delivered by then-Boston Braves pitcher Warren Spahn to then-New York Giants rookie Willie Mays in 1951; Mays sent the ball into the stands. Spahn later remarked, “For the first 60 feet, it was a helluva pitch.” In other words, the speech was a failure–and all that matters is how you finish.
Inflation was still out of control, the economy was beset by another stage of torpor, and Ronald Reagan offered optimism in the face of the declining mood of the country. Moreover, during Carter and Reagan’s only debate in the 1980 presidential elections, Reagan closed by asking voters are they better off than they were four years ago; many agreed they were not.
Based of this 1976 campaign ad, where Carter slams Republican attitudes towards the economy and notes how inflation is making grocery store trips harder to swallow financially. Oh, and cops were being cut, welfare was exploding, and cities were collapsing, but if you vote him into office; he would fix all that. Obviously, things turned out poorly.
So, I guess Carter can look back and say that if he had gone to war with Iran, he would have been re-elected; but he didn’t. His ineffectiveness as a leader is what most Americans saw at the end of the day; collapsing while running a 6.2 mile-race and having it being captured by the press didn’t help either. Maybe he was just in the right place and time when Americans were not enthused about electing another Republican into the White House after Nixon.