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SHIRLEY: Carter-astrophe in the Gulf: Day 45

President Obama embraces stagecraft, not statecraft

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2010

When an incumbent loses his bid for re-election, it is not terribly unusual to see him lash out at his opponents, often using canards and misinformation to explain his loss.

After all, how many times have we seen a politician blame himself for his defeats? Jimmy Carter blamed Walter Cronkite and the networks for highlighting the Iranian hostage crisis for his loss in 1980, ignoring the terrible economy, America's shaky standing in the world and the Georgian's own failures in office.

George H.W. Bush blamed himself - but only after a fashion - by lamenting the "no new taxes" pledge he had made in 1988 but not that he had broken that pledge in 1991, which is what really cost him re-election. Richard Nixon, having failed to win the California governorship in 1962 as a way station to another bid for the presidency in 1964, blamed his defeat on Fidel Castro over the timing of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Political history is replete with politicians blaming not themselves, but others, for their losses and mistakes. This comes with the territory.

In The Washington Post several days ago, Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican, did not blame himself for his recent failure to win re-nomination, but rather the Tea Party, which opposed him. He also made the incredible claim that the Tea Party's concerns were the same as Mr. Carter's in his now notorious "Malaise" speech of the summer of 1979.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Nor did Ronald Reagan coin the term "Big Tent," as Mr. Bennett also wrongly claims. Reagan never uttered the phrase. In fact, Reagan said a political party is "not a fraternity. You don't join a political party because you like their ties." One joins a political party, the Gipper said in 1980, because you have a shared sense of philosophy and ideology.

Reagan railed often against the national government and its taxation, spending and intrusive policies, just as the Tea Party is doing today. The modern Tea Party is the historic heir to the conservative movement Reagan led in the late 1970s, as much opposed to Carterism as the populist Tea Party today is opposed to Obamaism.

In fact, Mr. Carter's address was an attack on the American people, antithetical to his call in 1976 for a "government as good as the American people." Walter Mondale told me that he so opposed the speech, he seriously considered resigning the vice presidency.

Mr. Bennett missed the opportunity to make a more salient historical analogy. Many on the right are comparing President Obama's handling of the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico to George W. Bush's Katrina response or purported lack thereof.

The more accurate historical analogy to Mr. Obama's fecklessness is Mr. Carter's in dealing with the 444-day hostage crisis, in which more than 50 Americans were held at gunpoint by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Mr. Carter became and Mr. Obama now has become "engulfed" in crisis, down to a daily count-up by the media of each calamity.

The similarities are astonishing. Mr. Carter's administration was dominated by government technicians and academics obsessed with process and politics if not governance, just as Mr. Obama's administration is today. Decisiveness is not a hallmark of either profession. Rather, both are given to commissions; studies; grandiose pronouncements; speeches; endless, inconclusive meetings; and award presentations, but both eschew the harsh but necessary decisiveness found in the private sector or strong men.

It is the stagecraft, not the statecraft, that animates them and their zeal for power. Shakespeare said, "The play's the thing." But he did not say it was the only thing. With Mr. Carter then and Mr. Obama now, action means yet another timely photo-op; in Mr. Obama's case, childishly playing with oil globules on a beach in Louisiana. (Were those really street shoes Mr. Obama wore on the beach? Didn't the "beautiful people" make great sport of Richard Nixon for doing the same thing?)

Mr. Carter literally became a self-imposed prisoner of his own White House (to his political benefit) until, he said, the hostages were released. Astonishingly, he then released himself after the disastrous Desert One rescue debacle in the sands outside of Tehran, in which eight GIs died when a helicopter collided with a plane.

The mission might have had a chance had Mr. Carter not micromanaged it, down to ignoring the military's call for many more helicopters and men.

Mr. Carter obsessed so much over the details rather than the broader picture that he actually instructed the American troops to kill the guards around the American hostages if they were demonstrably members of the military, but if the guards were civilian "students," they were only to be "knocked unconscious."

Of course, the hostages did not come home until, terrified of the "madman" Ronald Reagan, the ayatollah released them just minutes after the Gipper had been sworn into office.

Academic and government bureaucrats typically hate tough decisions, often because they fear offending someone, especially someone who might be a future political ally.

In contrast, Reagan was faced in the summer of 1981 with a strike by PATCO, the air-traffic controllers union, which threatened to ground the nation's civilian airlines.

Reagan moved swiftly and said that unless the strikers returned to work, he would fire them. They failed to do so. Reagan dismissed them, new controllers were trained and the sky over America remained open for business.

PATCO was one of the few labor unions that had endorsed candidate Reagan in 1980, but he wasn't afraid of upsetting friends.

Decisive leadership often involves offending friends, and history is crowded with men - from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy - willing to take tough stances and exert leadership.

History also is replete with failures in presidential leadership, from James Buchanan to Gerald Ford to Mr. Carter and now Mr. Obama and his objectively failed first 18 months in office.

This is the difference between needing to make decisions that could offend friends and coddling them, like a soft, old bureaucrat.

One becomes the president of a fraternity by not rubbing people the wrong way. But that does not make one a good president of the United States.

Craig Shirley is the president of Shirley & Banister Public Affairs and the author of two books on Ronald Reagan, including the newly released "Rendezvous With Destiny: Ronald Reagan and the Campaign That Changed America" (Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2009). He is now working on a political biography of Newt Gingrich.

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