Carter navigation: wooing Kennedy aboard, then pitting helmsmanship against Reagan

Jimmy Carter's 11th-hour yielding on four platform issues -- including a Kennedy plank protesting interest rate hikes to fight inflation -- provoked a mixed response here at the Democratic National Convention.

Some saw the move the way the President's people said they intended it -- as conciliatory.

But while Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is thought to want to prepare for accord, while pressing for advantage, his backers stressed "unequivocally" that they would have won a floor vote on the issues anyway.

More important, Kennedy spokesmen said, for the President to yield but say this meant no shift in policy again raised "the problems of commitment that brought the senator into the race 10 months ago."

But despite this tense jockeying with the Kennedy and other anti-Carter elements at the convention, the President's nomination seems assured and his re-election prospects will likely turn on longer-range factors. Specifically, can Carter, as he has in the past, direct attention away from his actions and their consequences and toward his character and intentions.

This is the broad conclusion of a Monitor survey of nearly two dozen political strategists, presidential scholars, and party officials: Vision and competence may replace integrity as the character test of 1980.

The assets of incumbency, Carter's vigorous and relentless campaign energies, and the Democratic numerical edge in voters nationally still make him the man to beat, most experts say. The presidential debates alone in the fall offer him a chance to make up ground in giant steps against the Republican contender.

Still, the list of Carter assets and liabilities in 1980 is headed by the public's view of the very complex character of the President from Plains, Ga., just as Carter himself said it would in 1976 when he defeated Gerald Ford.

In 1976, Carter's perceived traits -- honesty, trustworthiness, a clear intellect, earnestness, openness toward down-and-outers and blacks -- offered, in the public's view, a contrast to a character-flawed (by Watergate) White House, if not to Mr. Ford personally.

Carter did not, however, offer a programmatic vision for binding together the Democratic factions -- the regional, cultural, and economic groups -- in 1976, political experts observe.

And in 1980, in his fourth year in office, no single activist phrase -- like Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, FDR's New Deal, Harry Truman's Fair Deal, John Kennedy's New Frontier, and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society -- suggests a clearly visible Carter policy thrust. This has left an opening for the Republicans to charge the administration with practicing "trust me" politics.

More significantly, his emphasis on leadership style rather than cohesive action has contributed to his ups and downs in the polls, and public readings of Carter as "ineffectual," "incompetent," and "inconsistent," analysts of the presidency say. For the second summer in a row, Carter's approval rating has hit new lows -- dropping from 3-to-1 negative to 5-to-1 negative in the Gallup poll in the past month alone.

The appearance of vulnerability, plus the separate ambitions of his attackers , has contributed to the open convention, "dump Carter" drive here in New York.

The crux of the challenge for Carter in 1980 will be whether he alters the personal, character-centered pattern of his earlier political career -- his first campaign in running for the Georgia Senate in 1962. It is a style, political observers say, that may be better suited to winning office than to keeping it.

It got him in trouble before. Even in Georgia, Carter would have faced trouble winning a second term. A 1973 Georgia poll anticipated Carter's popularity skid as President: Only 34 percent of the respondents agreed "Jimmy Carter has been one of the best governors we've ever had." On the other hand, 43 percent disagreed, and 23 percent said they didn't know.

"In a country in which the reaction to corruption in politics reached the stage it did in 1976, sometimes the public wants a president for who he is, and what he is," says Michael Rogin, University of California-Berkeley political scientist. "It worked with Eisenhower for two terms. Eisenhower wasn't seen as an achiever in office. But the grounds for his prestige were demonstrated with World War II.

"Carter's prestige in 1976 wasn't based on that kind of achievement. In terms of 1980, his emphasis on 'me' politics fails. The public feels the economy is in bad shape; we're weak in foreign affairs. The people want something he can't deliver. It discredits him."

The public divides evenly between blaming Carter for incompetence and thinking the problems are too great, says Mervin Field, the California pollster.

"The public is scared and impatient on the economy. It is unhappy, pessimistic. People think problems may be beyond control, yet they are still ready to believe something can be done.

"The President's having to talk about [inflation and recession] gets them angry, impatient to have something done about it. It makes them want to take a chance on somebody else."

Mr. Field at the moment gives Ronald Reagan the November edge. "The election will be Reagan's to lose," he says. "Carter's main strength will be Ronald Reagan. The issue will be whether Reagan collapses in some critical way."

Carter's positive traits -- "honest, straightforward, means well" -- have become the subject of caricature recently, Mr. Field observes, a harbinger of trouble.

In 1980, despite Carter's term in Washington, the public stil has "a better bead on Reagan than on Carter," Field says. Reagan has been prominent in national life since the mid 1960s, and more notice was taken of his eight years in the California governorship than of Carter's four years in Georgia.

"Carter emerged at the convention in 1976 after the collapse of the liberal rivals -- then faded and barely won," Field says. "The public has been tolerant. But now they're saying, "He talks about the problems. Let's get someone in who can do something."

"Because he lacks a national base, Carter has always been a creature of events," says David Gergen, managing editor of Public Opinion, a professional polling journal. "There's no safety net beneath him."

"We talk about a base rate of inflation," Mr. Gergen says. "Carter has a base rate of approval down about 20 or 25 points. He captured public attention with the media and rode into office. But people won't ride through the fire with him."

By comparison, Reagan has a "solid base support in the 30 [percentage point range], and Nixon's underlying conservative support never left him," according to Gergen.

"Carter has the blacks and mill workers in the South, but not the white upper class in the South," Gergen says. "He's not ideological. People don't know where he stands.

"The Carter rally last fall was artificial. It depended on two events -- Iran and Afghanistan. His rating returned to prior levels of approval and now has turned down even lower because of the downturn in the economy.

"He can claim with justification the Billy [Carter] affair has been overdramatized. It involves errors of judgment, not real culpability. But he was open and vulnerable to attack before [the Billy Carter affair] occurred," Gergen says.

Pollster Burns Roper, who sees Carter winning in the fall, admits he is puzzled by the President's popularity performance. He predicted last Nov. 1 that Senator Kennedy's star would plummet. "I thought the American public wanted him only as long as they couldn't have him," he says of the Massachusetts Democrat. "Maybe the public will notm want Jimmy Carter until they find they may have to do without him."

"I'm not sure Carter is in as much trouble as he appears to be," Mr. Roper says. The Roper polls were showing Carter behind Reagan by two or three percentage points when other polls showed him 15 points behind. "Our last approval question did not show him lower than the last three presidents, and not lower than he was before," Roper says.

"Carter's a complex guy," Roper continues. "He said in Ohio, 'We've turned the corner on the economy.' Then four days later we got our worst economic report in years.

"The elites -- party leaders and the press -- have been badmouthing him. But much of the public is not directly responding to things like what he said about [former secretary of state Cyrus] Vance after he left office."

Still, the elites' talk erodes public support for Carter. "Reports about trouble at the convention are unsettling," Roper says. "Concern about the state of our power in the world is raised by the imagery of Iran."

Carter needs to tap the public's latent optimism and hope, some observers say.

"Carter needs something," says Stephen Wayne, a White House scholar at George Washington University.

"The Billy thing hurts him on his integrity -- the one thing he's had going for him," Mr. Wayne says. "Beyond that, he has only the party and the office -- which he must rely on now more than ever to win.

"After nomination, he will clothe himself in the trappings of the office and make himself out as a 'traditional' Democrat.

"Which aspects of tradition will he tap? He'll downplay Johnson's '60s big-government social programs. One of the biggest voids in this administration is the lack of hope -- of vision and direction. He's got to be very firm in what he wants.

"He must run as a John Kennedy type, not a Ted Kennedy type. He'll get the liberal, black, Chicano vote. He has to worry about the traditional blue-collar urban voters.

"He needs the Kennedy uplift, but not the Johnson-Kennedy policies. He needs to tap new currents in Democratic thoughts."

Roper similarly criticizes Carter for "sail trimming."

"One of the things Carter's done," Roper claims, "is to say, we must trim our sails; we can't have the same leadership or economic status we had in the past. The public won't buy that. It thinks we can have economic growth and a high standard of living, too."

Carter's GOP opponents see his 1980 prospects as strong -- but find him vulnerable on competence.

"I don't like to see this much of a lead [for the Republican nominee] in the polls," says James Baker, Gerald Ford's 1976 campaign manager and now a senior adviser to the Reagan campaign. "Right now, we're setting on a 23-, 27-point lead. In '76 we were 30 points back, and it was a dead heat on Election Day.

"In '76 the issue was the competence of Jerry Ford on the one hand and the trustworthiness of Jimmy Carter on the other," Mr. Baker says. "This time it will be just the competence issue -- who is most competent to handle the affairs of the country. That's where the Billy Carter affair hurts. It certainly hasn't been handled in a competent way."

The bitter 1976 GOP convention showdown between Gerald Ford and Reagan did not deprive the eventual survivor, Ford, of the traditional post-convention surge in the polls, Baker says: "We knocked [the 30-point Carter lead] down from 31 points to 17 points coming out of the '76 convention. We would expect the same this year for the Democrats."

Throughout his political career, Carter has tended to shine and then fade, observes Betty Glad, a University of Illinois professor and leading Carter historian. (Mrs. Glad's book, "Jimmy Carter: In Search of the Great White House ," was published by Norton Aug. 1.)

"Carter wouldn't have been re-elected again as governor of Georgia," Mrs. Glad told the Monitor."Carter's political base in the state had deteriorated by 1974 to the point that most statewide politicians preferred not to be closely associated with him," she says.

His political isolation then presaged the effort of many mainstream Democrats to put distance between themselves and the President in 1980, she suggests.

Carter's complexities -- chiefly a tendency to send "mixed signals" about where he stands -- have tended to make trouble for him, as well as help him win, Mrs. Glad says.

With the press, he can court and charm editors but bristle at what he sees as negative questions by reporters. He shows two speaking styles: "He is formal and ill-at-ease when he is with large groups of powerful men," Mrs. Glad observes, "but warm and ingratiating before the powerless blacks and the elderly , usually in small groups."

Carter stressed the integrity theme long before he ran for the White House.

In 1966 he used a refrain heard often in 1976 and echoed as recently as his Aug. 4 press conference in the Billy affair: "If I ever let you down in my actions," he said in his 1966 Georgia Senate campaign, "I want you to let me know about it, and I'll correct it. I promise never to betray your confidence in me."

Despite such pronouncements, Carter also showed "a willingness to go for the jugular of his opponents" in that election, Mrs. Glad says.

Ten years before Carter's presidential race he showed the traits and themes that would surface later. These included, Mrs. Glad says, "A refusal to accept ideological labels; avoidance of controversy; emphasis on personality, morality, and integrity; preference for concrete proposals over broad political issues; and an ability to corral a network of talented and energetic supporters as well as a disciplined, effective staff."

The ups and dows of public approval for Carter may be linked to the public's confused response to his often-contradictory traits, Mrs. Glad suggests.

The keys to understanding Carter -- his idealized sense of himself and his mission, an illusion of his perfectness -- leads him to overpromise, overstate his successes, and deflect blame for his failures, she says.

Politically, Carter's overestimations of his personal power -- which he may sincerely believe in -- can lead him to action before he does his homework. He does not learn readily from his mistakes, Mrs. Glad continues. His problems with getting legislation through Congress stemmed from this trait.

Stylistically, Carter's penchant for rigid self-control finds him, engineerlike, focusing on details -- a tendency to reorganize government, for example, rather than compel it to do something, she says. He lacks the conceptually creative habits that come from free association and a more relaxed manner. This habit alienates many intellectual Democrats who are moved by "ideas."

As Carter speechwriter James Fallows complained on resigning his White House post:

"Carter has not given us an ideam to follow. The central idea of the Carter administration is Jimmy Carter himself, his own mixture of traits, since the only thing that finally gives coherence to the items of his creed is that he happens to believe them all. . . . I came to think that Carter believes 50 things, but no one thing. He holds explicit, thorough positions on every issue under the sun, but he has no large view of the relations between them, no line indicating which goals (reducing unemployment? human rights?) will take precedence over which (inflation control? a SALT treaty?) when the goals conflict. Spelling out those choices makes the difference between a position and a philosophy, but it is an act foreign to Carter's mind. He is a smart man, but not an intellectual, in the sense of liking the play of ideas, of pushing concepts to their limits to examine their implications."

Much of the American public may more readily vote for Carter for his ad-hoc pragmatism than if he were the kind of intellectual Mr. Fallows and others seem to miss.

Nonetheless, opinion experts say, the faintness of the Carter policy star chart leads much of the public to feel the country is adrift, rudderless. It reflects on his competence.

As a charismatic leader, Carter may inspire a personal trust that is hazarded in his absence or when he fails to produce, say students of his career.

The 1976 Watergate test of character -- simple probity and truthfulness -- may not apply to Carter in 1980, where the character question may instead involve the capacity to envision and lead.

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