That '70s Candidate
Jimmy Carter with helmet hair
The decade of the 1970s is like a low-grade virus: Whenever we think we're over it, the symptoms return. This past season, the Fox network launched That '70s Show, a sitcom whose plots revolve around such things as Todd Rundgren concerts. At every wedding reception I've attended lately, they've played "YMCA," triggering that obligatory dance where you're supposed to mime the letters. (I always do it wrong, and end up looking like Koko the sign-language gorilla.) Even flare pants are back.
And Jimmy Carter is running for president again–only this time, his name is Elizabeth Dole.
It stands to reason. In Watergate's wake, people wanted the most un-Nixonian leader possible, and they found him in a Georgia peanut farmer who spoke of love, bragged of his status as a Washington outsider, and could say with a straight face, "I'll never lie to you." A similar phenomenon is at work today. Although Clinton's job approval numbers soared throughout Monicagate, Americans correctly judged his character to be the moral equivalent of a toxic waste dump. So in place of the wizard of id, they might be seeking someone who is utterly self-controlled–a leader who would again make the White House safe for interns.
Who better than Elizabeth Dole? Not only is she a woman, but it is hard to picture an immoral thought taking root beneath her hair helmet. Like Carter, she sports a smarmy manner and humorless grin that spell "the opposite of sex."
At this point, you may be wondering whether the Carter comparison is overdrawn. Like Carter in 1976, Dole can claim moral superiority to the winner of the last election. But in 1999, so can every other candidate. In fact, so can nearly everyone else on this planet, with the possible exception of Charles Manson. And come to think of it, Manson hasn't bombed any aspirin factories lately.
In Dole's case, however, the similarity to Carter goes beyond the ability to surpass a pitifully low moral threshold. It is with words that presidents govern, and her words bear a creepy likeness to Carter's.
Start with slogans. After Dole filed with the Federal Election Commission, her homepage (www.edole2000.org) featured these words: "The United States of America deserves a government worthy of its people." That's mighty close to Carter's promise of "a government as good as its people." In her announcement speech, she said, "We're beginning to lose faith in our own institutions. It's only a short step to losing faith in ourselves, and then we would be lost." She added that we "must renew faith in the goodness of our nation."
In 1976, Carter told the California Senate, "If I had to sum up in one word what this campaign is all about, the word would be faith. The American people want to have faith in their government. And it is our responsibility, as public men and women, to do everything in our power to help them regain the faith that they have lost."
At first glance, these phrases sound nice enough, fitting with the give-'em-heaven religiosity we associate with both Carter and Dole. But that's also a problem. The notion that we're all basically good clashes with the concept of original sin, as the Gospel of Matthew puts it, "No one is good but One, that is, God."
Theology aside, an emphasis on individual goodness implies that the main challenge of politics is not to limit government but to find angelic leaders who will use that power for good ends. "If angels were to govern men," wrote Madison, "neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." Since the political world is short on angels, he reasoned, we need strict checks on what government can do.
Madisonian ideas took a beating in the 1970s, just as Carter and Dole were coming into prominence. In the Georgia governorship, Carter enlarged government as much as the state's political culture would allow; and when he became president, he signed the bills establishing the Departments of Energy and Education. In the White House Office of Consumer Affairs and at the Federal Trade Commission, Dole favored increased government regulation and even wanted a Consumer Protection Agency.
Both went so far as to vouch for the virtues of bureaucrats. During the 1976 primary campaign, Carter's rival Jerry Brown criticized government administrators. Carter replied, "That is wrong. I have seen at first hand that most government employees want to do a good job." In her 1988 joint autobiography with Bob Dole, Elizabeth fondly recalled her FTC years: "I believe now what I believed then. Perhaps no one is more unjustly maligned than the bureaucrat."
REASON reader, I hope you weren't sipping coffee while reading that line. If you were, you probably spit it all over the magazine. Take a minute to clean up.
OK now? Back to Dole. Lest you think I got her words wrong, check pages 152-153 of the hardcover edition of The Doles: Unlimited Partners. You'll find that it gets worse: "I tell youthful audiences they can find no higher calling in life than that of the public service." What about the priesthood, the ministry, or the rabbinate? Heck, what about running a business and creating jobs?
"They may not get rich but they'll enrich the lives of countless others." Yeah, like trial lawyers and agribusiness lobbyists. "Because of them, the world is a little better." As Clinton would say, that depends on what the meaning of the word better is. If it includes frustration and impoverishment, she may be right.
If not bureaucrats, who causes policy problems? Carter pointed to special interests, saying that otherwise good people get selfish when they undertake political action. "Schoolteachers love their students," he said, "but when they organize and hire a lobbyist to work with the legislature, those lobbyists don't care anything about the students." Of course, that fine sentiment didn't stop him from promising to set up the Department of Education in return for teacher union support.
Dole is just as consistently inconsistent. In her campaign announcement, she said government is: "paralyzed by special interests." Huh? In the Reagan White House, she headed the Office of Public Liaison, whose sole purpose was to cater to special interests. And then she headed two of the most clientele-serving Cabinet departments: Transportation and Labor. After all those experiences, plus four national campaigns at Bob Dole's side, she had the chutzpah to add, "I'm not a politician, and frankly today I think that may be a plus."
Carter portrayed his devotion to government as pragmatism, not ideology. "In the last analysis," he said in Los Angeles on August 23, 1976, "good government is not a matter of being liberal or conservative…. We want both progress and preservation." Dole plies the same murky waters. In a New Hampshire speech, she said: "Most Americans prefer solutions to sound bites"–which was her sound bite for the evening news. "This makes us naturally suspicious of what I call either/or politics: Liberal vs. conservative. Public school vs. private school. Us vs. them." Or in the immortal words of Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it!"
The story isn't all bad. Just as Jimmy Carter helped deregulate airlines, Dole oversaw the privatization of Conrail. Moreover, she decries the high level of taxation and speaks with pride of her service as a "lieutenant in Ronald Reagan's army." So despite all the bad signs, might she be a closet free market type?
Nah. For any GOP candidate, damning taxes and blessing Reagan are obligatory gestures, more etiquette than ideology. With Dole, you have to think about the words you don't hear. Ponder her statement on education: "I regard public education as one of the glories of American democracy. Which is precisely why the number one priority of any education reform must be this: to restore our public schools to greatness." Would a real free-market Republican have omitted any mention of private or parochial schools?
At the Transportation Department, Dole's best-known accomplishment was a rule requiring that every new car have an air bag or automatic safety belt. Just imagine if she had headed the Department of Health and Human Services: All refrigerators would come with a "Liddy Light" that would flash if we got too much ice cream.
No wonder a former aide once told Fortune magazine, "She's progressive at the core." If she becomes president, we'll probably get what we got in the 1970s: a pro-government agenda clad in polyester fuzzwords.
Dole has one last similarity to Jimmy Carter: the persistence of a childhood nickname. Though she reportedly hates people to call her "Liddy," she's probably stuck with it, at least for the duration of the campaign. "Elizabeth Dole" is a bit long for buttons and bumper stickers. In light of recent costume movies, "Elizabeth" would summon up images of Cate Blanchett or Judi Dench. "Dole" would make people think of Bob, not Elizabeth. And "E.D." would not do, since the initials also stand for "erectile dysfunction." Thanks to a current public service ad campaign for Pfizer, that would also remind people of Bob.
Contributing Editor John J. Pitney Jr. (email@example.com) is associate professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.