Carter's blunder: no more Mr. Nice Guy

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is chief of the Monitor's Washington bureau.

The Carter defeat can be easily explained, but the devastating nature of the loss, the landslide that left the President with only a pitiful handful of electoral votes -- that's not so easy to explain.

The newly wise pollsters and political pundits say there was some last-minute welling up of discontent with President that spilled over into a mighty Reagan victory. They suggest that the trigger was the developments on the possible release of the hostages -- and that it only underscored the frustrations of the voters on that issue and sent them to the polls to resolve their lingering indecision with a vote for Reagan.

This is a credible scenario for explaining an election result that the pollsters have to be embarrassed about, no matter how much they seek to get off the hook by saying they simply didn't poll late enough.

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But my own intuition tells me that the President, fairly early in the campaign, had made himself vulnerable to a spanking defeat when he lost much of the public good will that had been accorded him since he entered the White House. That happened the week or two in which Mr. Carter used excessive rhetoric against Mr. Reagan -- for which he later apologized, but too late to help him. He hinted strongly that Reagan was a racist, a warmonger, and a person who would divide the nation, white from black, rich from poor, if he became president.

Out on the hustings this reporter found a large number of voters, Democrats as well as Republicans; appalled at what they saw as a hitherto unseen mean streak in their President. One Midwest housewife said: "When Carter has failed I've always said that the President was trying -- and that he's a fine, moral, decent man. Now I don't know how I can defend him anymore."

This was a typical comment. The President, quite suddenly, had lost much if not all of the residual good will that had served him so well over the years.

Carter's honeymoon lasted much longer than had been anticipated -- and in the face of an economy not yielding to his solutions -- simply because the public continued to like him as a person. When finally he did begin to suffer reverses in public opinion with many people rather reluctantly deciding he wasn't up to the job, he did drop significantly in the polls measuring his performance. But then he would bounce back, sometimes in a sudden leap, as when he achieved a triumph at the Camp David peace talks on he Middle East.

What gave the President his great resiliency was a continuing feeling among Americans everywhere that he was a good, even rather sweet fellow who deserved sympathy and support. Thus, a lot of people were rooting for Carter -- "nice guy" Carter. They needed very little indication that Carter was accomplishing something to upgrade their opinion of how he was handling his job.

This good will accorded Carter was evident during the hostage crisis. People even rallied around the President in the failed rescue mission. Some of this was a rallying around the flag, but polls showed some of it came from Americans eager to get behind a President they rather liked who was having troubles.

But then came Carter's attacks on Reagan, rhetoric that was widely viewed as demagogic and shabby -- beneath the conduct expected of any president but particularly beneath what was expected of nice-guy Carter. The public's verdict was quick and clear: No matter the provocation, no president -- and certainly not this President -- should stoop that low to try to underscore differences between himself and his opponent.

My guess is that there would have been many more Carter voters -- and that Mr. Carter might have made a more respectable showing in losing -- had he not dissipated his residual good will with some intemperate and very unwise remarks.

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