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Carter’s Problems

Running Carter against himself.

The networks tried to convey an understanding of what they were broadcasting. ABC called it a social occasion: "You get no sense of a political gathering here," cracked Harry Reasoner. Over at CBS, Walter Cronkite remarked: "The convention is in complete control of the Carter and Democratic National Committee forces and no fights are being permitted." The prevailing theme was persistent unrelieved harmony, the image of an absolutely unified gathering.

Of the less fortunate, less harmonious past, there were only glimpses and allusions. National chairman Robert Strauss, architect of the most crowded convention ever and exceedingly pleased with himself, spoke pointedly of "a new beginning." Asked about the uncharacteristic unanimity about this year's not very far-reaching platform, committee chairman Alan Cranston said, "We've debated and dissented ourselves to defeat all too often," Merely sidebar figures, the party's last two nominees were invited to speak briefly. Hubert Humphrey was in typical Humphrey form—rousing, cheerful, lusty, prolix. George McGovern, who seemed to consider himself the most embarrassing reminder of days past, paid tribute to Jimmy Carter and sat down. There were only small backroom reminders of conventions past. Some happenings, however, were symbolic, Fritz Efaw came to New York as an elected alternate from Democrats Abroad, a delegate category not intended to include draft resisters and deserters. But Efaw has lived outside the country for seven years, and returned at some risk to his personal liberty to tell this convention that amnesty is the great hangover of the Vietnam era, that there is a category of Americans who are still standing outside Jimmy Carter's broad consensus. Indeed, Efaw was met at the airport by a US attorney from Oklahoma who wanted him back home to face charges immediately, Efaw stayed at the convention only at the sufferance of a New York magistrate. At Madison Square Garden, Efaw worked on various strategies to get his case before the delegates. He even asked the populist former presidential aspirant Fred Harris, a fellow Oklahoman, to place his name in nomination for Vice President and thereby address the issue of amnesty. Spokesmen for Harris refused, dismissing the idea as a "meaningless gesture." Carter's operatives, who wanted the harmony continued and who controlled access to the podium, suggested Efaw get his case across to the television people but not to address the convention crowd.

Television replays carried to nighttime viewers the remains of another battle, skirmishes between various women's groups and the Carter campaign for guarantees for more female representation at future conventions. The debate, in a crammed, overheated hotel caucus room, was about how far the women would have to move in Carter's direction in compromising their original demands for a 50 percent quota. The main measure of this year's ground gained, it was reported, is that the candidate himself was willing to negotiate. Said Mildred Jeffrey, a veteran of such affairs: "East time, we met with McGovern's aides. This time. Carter saw us."

One other host of conventions past: when Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley mounted the podium to defend the platform, he was greeted with sustained applause trom the Illinois delegation, and a waving of hand-lettered cardboard signs, one referring to the mayor's ouster four years ago, said: "Daley's '59 is back." When Daley suggested to the Illinois caucus that the delegation make its presidential ballot unanimous for Carter, one delegate who was disinclined to go along voted nay. "That's all right," said Daley, "we'll make it unanimous without you."

Unity and harmony were the messages, but underlying that orthodoxy were a few convention-week signs that the coming campaign will be a greater testing for Jimmy Carter than anything he has yet encountered, either in the primaries or at Madison Square Garden. Constant convention talk of the only unresolved matter of consequence. Carter's choice of a running mate, led to political speculation and odds-making among newsmen and delegates inevitably centered on the candidate's weaknesses. Clearly, no choice Carter could make would ever settle all the problems.

Speculation about Frank Church, for example, focused on Carter's weakness in the West, where he entered five, and lost five, primaries. Abe Ribicoff, the first prospective running mate to decline, would have also been the first Jewish vice presidential candidate, and Carter's support with Jews, one of the most consistent and concentrated Democratic voting blocs, was negligible during the primaries.

John Glenn, the conservative Democrats' choice, with the poll ratings of an astronaut, not a politician, would complement Carter on the issues, but his presence would serve to emphasize that the head of the ticket is inexperienced in Washington and foreign affairs. Anti-Washingtonism may have been epidemic during the primaries; but a foreign relations crisis during the general election—no more serious even than the trumped-up Mayaguez affair—could turn that vaunted Carter advantage into a fatal deficiency. Edmund Muskie, it was reiterated, would be helpful with urban ethnics and Catholics, population groups centered mainly in the middle industrial states and the Northeast, places where Jimmy Carter lost more than he won. These are groups where suspicion of his upfront Protestant fundamentalism is often unstated but strong. Catholics are not a bloc-vote, says Jimmy Carter; they are as various in their political beliefs as any other religious group. But ethnic Catholics, in fact, are traditionally Democratic, and they are lodged disproportionately in the big cities of the traditional battleground states in a close presidential contest, states with many electoral votes and where victory margins are normally small—in the three or four percentage point range. If the Democratic party has transcended the era of lingering North-South divisions with its unified nomination of a native Georgian, Jimmy Carter's own remark, dredged up and repeated floorside last week, indicates that Carter himself has some reaching out to do, A long-time Democrat, a New Yorker, a Jew, said: "Remember his statement before the Pennsylvania primary? 'They chose to be coalminers.' Nobody who is remotely in touch with American immigrant experience could have made that statement."

And the name of Barbara Jordan, the convention's most applauded speaker, once included but not among Carter's finalists, gave rise to talk of other potential blacks for Vice President and to a resurgence of commentary on the suspicions of black elected officals whose support of Jimmy Carter lagged badly behind the black rank-and-file. "Outwitted and outmaneuvered," is how Shirley Chisholm described herself and other black leaders, and public expressions that they remained unconvinced of Carter's commitment to minority causes led first to a meeting with the candidate and then to a statement that all reservations had vanished.

Talk of Walter Mondale on the ticket was framed in terms of appeasement of the liberals, those who controlled the 1972 convention and fell apart thereafter. In New York City, reformers were nagging about some outstanding rules fights, but only slightly so. Their reservations about Carter were well enough known and adequately expressed in the late primary campaigns and at the convention with the placing in nomination of the names of Morris Udall and Jerry Brown. Before dropping his effort to get the presidential nomination, Mondale was the acclaimed liberal frontrunner, the heir to the McCarthy-Kennedy-McGovern legacy. His selection, it was said, would be Carter's gesture to the left, a group Carter needs. Mondale indeed was anointed on Thursday.

Other signs of disquietude not evident from the platform or on the floor were also expressed in preconvention opinions handed over by the delegates to the networks. More than 700 delegates, for example, told CBS that they would not cast their vote for the party's all-but-certain nominee (a phrase now happily extinct) even if they knew he had the 1505 votes needed to capture the nomination. It was a question evidently designed to tap restiveness; it called forth a gratuitous expression of negativism, and the delegates took the bait. That feeling was confirmed in an NBC straw poll conducted in the delegation hotel lobbies; it showed 64 percent of the respondents expressing anonymous reservations about Jimmy Carter.

Findings like these were confirmed in a preconvention polling of the nation's electorate by Time and Gallup. Time reported two important findings: first, among Democrats, Jimmy Carter has still failed to consolidate popular support. With his opposition collapsed, the nomination bagged, 44 percent of those questioned still expressed an explicit preference for someone other than Carter, compared to 47 percent who favored him. Also, in a Carter-Ford pairing, the Democrat has stalled at a nine-point lead and remained there for nearly three-and-a-half months. Gallup confirmed the common notion that Carter's support is wide but not deep. Measuring intensity, they found that only 27 percent of the voters polled had a highly favorable image of Carter. At comparable times, LBJ polled 57 percent, Eisenhower 49 percent, and Kennedy 47 percent. Only Nixon, with 28 percent, approached Carter's current low marks on this intensity index.

The delegate polls, Carter's own surveys, and a Republican National Committee poll released on the eve of the Democratic convention all confirmed that Carter's main weakness is a perceived failure to be forthright on issues, a fuzziness contrived to serve him up to all shades of Democrats in the primaries, against a crowded field of competitors. It is not a posture that Carter will be able to sustain against the GOP.

All these considerations raise the possibility that Jimmy Carter's slide in the late primaries is unrelieved, that his late losses were owed, not as his staff still believes, to mechanical causes (having to run one-to-one against Udall, Brown and Church in separate contests) but to a more important problem. With his advertising and campaign blitzes, accompanied by all that free press attention, it may be that Jimmy Carter was overexposed, that his message of love, trust and goodness began to curdle among those voters given the largest doses. When the going was toughest in those late days. Carter's blunt political attacks leveled mostly at Jerry Brown and Mo Udall were always accompanied by the standard campaign smile in a juxtaposition that made that smile seem counterfeit.

A little later Carter entered a period of presumptuousness, when the sense emanating from his intimates and from the candidate himself was that their man was all but installed in the Oval Office, a bit too sure a thing. That Carter himself shared this view is seemingly indicated by the quickly quashed public talk about pre-inauguration transition funds. Columnists wrote that the anti-Washington candidate seemed almost to be running as an incumbent. Commentators began to sense a growing case of Deweyitis, and Carter perceptibly began to heed their warnings. But one convention week event indicates that the aura of presumption may have merely been driven underground. Speaking to the largely uncommitted New Jersey delegation, Carter noted that never before had a nonincumbent been so assured of nomination, then describing an obligation that might have been more modestly and properly phrased in the future tense, he said, "It is my responsibility as President…."

Jimmy Carter has begun to wear somewhat badly, and that is why the talk of pollsters at the Republican National Committee today is that whoever wins the GOP nomination, one element of the party's essential general election game plan is already set in stone: they will run Jimmy Carter against Jimmy Carter.

Other gleanings from Madison Square Garden point in different, more positive directions. It is clear, for example, that Carter and his staff recognize some of the problems they will face in the fall. Carter consistently ran six to eight points behind his own polls in the primaries. In Michigan, his staff watched a 25-point lead over Mo Udall vanish to nothing when Carter suspended personal campaigning to confront Jerry Brown in Maryland. They recognized that where they could not run a balanced campaign, where one element—media organization or Carter himself—was in short supply, they were vulnerable. They are sensitive to the weaknesses in Carter's image and to his vulnerability with various parts of the Democratic electorate—so sensitive that pollster Pat Caddell, disinclined to give away tips for the general election, will not discuss those weaknesses on or off the record. "In 1972, Nixon made George McGovern the issue," says one Carter campaign leader. "Well, that sort of thing began to happen to us in the late primaries and it will surely happen in the general election. Jimmy Carter will be the issue and we have to plan in those terms."

Aware of the likelihood that the race will grow still tighter. Carter himself spent convention week reminding listeners that the upcoming campaign will be tough, that his lead in the polls will indeed begin to narrow once the GOP convention has settled its business. And that is why Jimmy Carter's convention was scripted to be placid to the point of ennui. Carter strategists considered the convention to be the first time the public would actually see this man in action and they were concerned about the image he conveyed and the impression left by the delegates. Harmony, dignity, peace were the orders of the day.

That is what they planned for, and that, by and large, is what they got. One of the most important functions of a nominating convention—the bestowal of legitimacy on the nominee—was properly carried off. Unlike McGovern in 1972, unlike Humphrey in 1968, Jimmy Carter's nomination is regarded as rightful. There is no element of the Democratic party that seriously questions that he is entitled to head the ticket, and that obviously includes liberals whose ideology he does not share, but whose rules provided him the means to win the nomination.

There is another major difference between now and 1972. Other Democrats standing for election around the country this year hold Carter in a different light than they did George McGovern. The mood among those who must occupy lower spots on the Carter ticket is optimistic, unlike four years ago when the mood was panicky. "Their frame of reference is the McGovern experience," says Robert Healy, a consultant to the nonunion liberal Labor Coalition Clearinghouse; "this time there will be no efforts to obtain a divorce from the top of the ticket, and no chance that a first term congressman in a marginal district will have to worry about his opponent branding him a Carterite."

Jimmy Carter's ascension has been sealed by a convention that was the theatrical equivalent of zero-based budgeting. The idea was to risk as little as possible, but the event was also managed in a manner that maximized odds that when the final gavel fell, the convention would adjourn, not disintegrate. That's the way it was intended, and that's the way it happened. Whatever his problems, it's not a bad beginning for the Carter-Mondale fall campaign.

This article ran in the July 24, 1976 issue of the magazine.