President Carter is his own worst enemy. He is in trouble right now for three reasons, all of which could have been avoided by competent teamwork around the White House.
First is the damage to himself and to his political prospects caused by mishandling of his relations with his brother, Billy. He should have kept a constant distance between himself and his brother. Billy is an unguided and unguidable missile, any association with which could be damaging. Yet in the anguish of the seizure of the American hostages Mr. Carter, first through his wife and then through his national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, did get himself involved with Billy.
Second is the damage from turning to Libya, through Billy, for help in the hostage matter. The present government of Libya is about as disreputable as a government can be. That it had the ability to be helpful in the matter of the hostages was at best an illusion. Yet the help of Libya was sought in the hostage affair.
Third is the mishandling of the affair of the "open" or "closed" convention. The Carter position is sound on any basis of legality or political propriety. The primary election system has been the dream of all liberal reformers for a half century. The system is meaningless if delegates elected in the primaries to support one candidate then turn around and vote for another. A rule to enforce this is a logical part of the primary system. Opposition to the rule is an attempt to escape from the primary system. The attack on it is coming from the self-styled liberal wing of the Democratic Party which is largely responsible for the system.
Mr. Carter could have avoided this issue by generously and magnanimously waiving the proposed new rule -- if he had done so when the issue first arose. The gesture could have been a bridge to the Kennedy faction in the party. But by waiting until the last week before the convention it became almost unthinkable. To give on the "open" issue at the last moment would be taken as weakness and probably more damaging than to face it out on the basis of logic and power.
So the President goes to his party's convention tarnished by an unnecessary association with his wayward brother, tarnished by an unnecessary and foolish association with a disreputable foreign government, and tarnished by finding himself unnecessarily on the unpopular, however logical, side of the "open" versus "closed" convention issue.
All of this has handed ammunition to the rivals in his own party, who have seized upon it gleefully and almost savagely. And it is, of course, watched with delight from the ranks of Republicans for whom it is manna from heaven.
It proves what all of us have known for a long time, that the Carter White House is accident-prone from poor teamwork. Good teamwork would have avoided both the use of brother Billy in the hostage affair and the useless recruiting of Libya. It also proves that the Carter White House is poor at damage control. There seems to be an almost incurable tendency to panic and talk too soon.
There was no need to deny any involvement with Billy, and then find that there had been, and to deny any discussion with the Department of Justice about Billy, and then have to admit that there had been such discussion. In good damage control you first determine the place and nature of the damage before applying remedies. The Carter White House has a tendency to deny first, and then look for the facts. It may be human. It is also self-damaging.
However, it is important on the eve of the Democratic convention to note that there is no real connection between these shortcomings at the Carter White House and the attempt to deprive Mr. Carter of the nomination. The Kennedy faction is not trying to spoil the Carter nomination because Mr. Carter runs a sloppy White House. They are trying to spoil it because Mr. Carter has not furthered the desires of those factions in the party which backed George McGovern to disaster in 1972.
Brother Billy, Libya, and the "open convention" issue are merely weapons used by those whose real purpose is to re-radicalize the Democratic Party. Mr. Carter has been a disappointment to the welfare community and to those who want a massive public health system. Organized labor and the black community wish he had done more for them, at the expense of others, than he has done. Most hostile to him of all are the Zionists who have been active in all the "dump Carter" operations.
Mr. Carter has been a moderate President of the center -- which largely explains his low ratings in the opinion polls. But it needs to be borne in mind that popularity and right policies are two different things. The best president is usually the one most willing and able to pursue unpopular causes. Harry Truman was unpopular in his time, usually for doing sound things. We can see it now. Many were blind to it then. Presidents should not be chosen for popularity, nor rejected for unpopularity.