It is anyone’s guess whether Donald Trump will be at the top of the Republican ticket in 2020. There’s a recognized possibility that Trump will be unable to complete his first term, most likely because of the evolving scandal mixing Russian engagement in the 2016 election with possible obstruction of justice. (At the moment, 40 percent of participants in the Predictwise prediction market think Trump will be unable to make it until Jan. 20, 2021.) Even if the president serves out the term, he might well be weakened to the point that he is not in a position to seek re-election. While the odds might be even regarding Trump’s literal presence at the top of the GOP ticket in the next presidential election, there is absolutely no doubt that he will be at the virtual head of that ticket. This reality should guide the Democratic Party as it begins its search for a 2020 standard-bearer, and a much-derided former governor of Georgia should be the party’s prototype as they pursue the ideal anti-Trump.
Of course, I refer to Jimmy Carter — the one-term “New South” governor of Georgia who had left office in early 1975 and immediately morphed into a presidential candidate so widely unknown that his own campaign self-mockingly referred to him as “Jimmy Who?” In that campaign, Carter’s strength as a candidate was driven by the fact that he presented himself as a foil to a man who hadn’t been in office for over two years: former President Richard Nixon.
I’ve been thinking about the 1970s in recent weeks because of listening to “Slow Burn,” Slate’s outstanding podcast overviewing Watergate (the last episode posted this week). While the major events of Watergate are well known, the podcast focuses on weirder moments in the scandal (Arkansans will enjoy Pine Bluff native Martha Mitchell’s role in the first episode), provides new insights on the political dynamics that played out during Watergate (particularly telling was just how popular Nixon remained across much of 1973 and how quickly those approval ratings fell), and examines the long-term impact of Watergate in American life (including the way in which it normalized conspiracy theories).
The stench of Watergate, the amorality that undergirded it and the attacks on democratic institutions still wafted over the 1976 campaign cycle. Entering this scene in the 1976 election cycle was Carter, a born-again Baptist Sunday School teacher who had worked to weave a state together following the civil rights battles of the 1960s. As he worked audiences in the Iowa caucuses and early contests against a large field of well-known opponents, the following became Carter’s mantra: “I’ll never tell a lie. I’ll never make a misleading statement. I’ll never betray the confidence that any of you had in me.” It was followed by another omnipresent phrase: “I want a government as good and as kind and as loving as the American people.” An energetic closing by President Gerald’s Ford campaign (including the most infectious campaign song ever) shrank the gap decidedly, but Carter was able to pull out a victory.
While there are vital differences between Watergate and the Trump/Russia scandal, “Slow Burn” implicitly suggests that there are some sharp similarities (a view reinforced by the news last week that a “Saturday Night Massacre” nearly occurred early last summer). Just as important, the lies and half-truths told by President Trump and his team on a daily basis have become part of the Trump brand for a healthy majority of Americans. A December Quinnipiac survey asked Americans what the first word that came to mind when hearing the president’s name was; “liar” was one of three bunched at the top along with others suggesting incompetency. Such a stain will have electoral consequences that remain with the GOP in 2020.
Just as Carter was in the lead up to 1976, a Democrat who legitimately combines an authentic, values-based commitment to service and personal steadiness is well suited to this political moment. Some folks on that list: Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy (who’s shown unflinching dedication on gun issues since Newtown), Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (a Quaker with a deep dedication to solving homelessness), Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (a steady former prosecutor with a notorious sense of humor) and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine (whose brand was marred by the 2016 campaign loss, but otherwise fits the bill).