Carter ’80 DNC Nomination Acceptance Speech Reaction

Carter’s second Acceptance Speech feels tired and half-hearted right out of the gate. While I wasn’t a big fan of his “My name is Jimmy Carter, and I’m running for President” line in ’76, it at least had an earnest, rural charm about it. The line accentuated his plain-spoken, non-politician, “aw sucks” quality which is what the nation wanted after the cynicism and secrecy of Nixon. While Carter ’76 wasn’t exactly youthful in appearance, there was an eagerness to him that you could find appealing. Now he just looks annoyed, and his simplistic opening lines recycled from ’76 feel more forced and less charming.

When Carter yells “we are gonna beat the Republicans in November” the applause is brief and far more subdued than I’m sure he’d intended. When he name-drops FDR, it doesn’t sound like the celebration of a proud and relevant legacy, it feels like grasping at straws by exploiting a bygone era. By this point, FDR’s electoral coalition was dead, the political paradigm of his day was over and his reforms hadn’t been built upon in over a decade. By the end of this election a new figure would sit in the Oval Office and radically redefine the national discourse to where FDR was no longer considered a bold reformer but instead a “big government SOCIALIST!!”

This time around, something about doing the usual lip service of Democrats tracing back to FDR just really rubs me the wrong way. Unlike Truman, or Stevenson, or JFK, LBJ and McGovern, Carter just isn’t on that same level ideologically to warrant following this line of standard bearers. He wasn’t a strong leader who could pass the New Deal or Civil Rights through an uncooperative Congress and Court system. He wasn’t a left-wing reformer, but was actually to the right of the Congressional Democrats. He didn’t build upon what those older nominees laid the foundation for, and in fact he stood in the way of their natural successors, McGovern (via leading the “Anybody but McGovern” coalition at the ’72 DNC) and now Ted Kennedy. Speaking of McGovern, the fact that Carter went out of his way to give Humphrey (a terrible speaker, a mediocre candidate and a sore loser) a special shout out (“a man who should have been president”) but ignores McGovern entirely felt like a slap in the face to me as a Progressive. Way to just completely single out and disgrace a guy whose only crime was losing an election; his loss would not have been so lopsided in the first place if Carter and the other Democrats didn’t help to make the DNC a farce.

With regards to Ted, considering this wasn’t a typical primary race but rather a nigh unprecedented challenge against a sitting president, it makes Carter’s congratulations feel immensely weak rather than gentlemanly. This may be an over the top comparison but bare with me. Imagine a normal primary season as two single men competing for the same single lady. She can only choose one, and while it stinks for the odd man out, there’s no shame in trying. In that case, for the victor to be a good sport and say “hey, tough luck man. But you’re a good guy and you’ll find someone else” is the respectable thing to do. Ok, if you’re still with me, now picture a challenger contesting a sitting president’s nomination as like an intruder courting a married man’s wife. But I’m not done—now imagine the husband telling his cuckolding interloper “hey, you’re a really great guy! I admire you!” Suddenly it doesn’t feel as good-natured and honorable anymore; now it just feels kind of embarrassing for all concerned. You’re watching a man be insulted and then be so emasculated he thanks the guy who injured him. Well, that’s what Carter’s conciliatory words to Kennedy feel like to me.

Again, maybe that metaphor wasn’t totally applicable, but the point is, when you’re thanking and placating a guy from your “team” who publicly declared you have no right to be president by challenging your otherwise guaranteed nomination, that’s not a good look. At all. In this case, Carter should have just ignored Ted completely, or at least not went on so long praising the guy who just totally humiliated him to the whole nation. It’s not like Ted was exactly reverent of Carter in his own convention speech anyway. Ted didn’t endorse or praise Carter, just a quick one line congratulations on his “victory” of obtaining a prize that was already rightfully his. You can hear a lot of murmuring in the crowd as Carter goes off on his full blown praise of Ted. Maybe it was because bringing up the beaten progressive option suddenly gave the audience buyer’s remorse as the Republicans felt in ’76, or maybe they felt this display of self-abasement was as awkward as I did. Whatever the reason, it seemed to completely suck the excitement (what little there was) out of the room. You can literally feel the mood change from then on.

ASIDE: For the record, I’m not a big Ted Kennedy supporter either, at least as far as his non-Senate legacy goes. As I said above, this situation was embarrassing for ALL concerned, including him. I think if he wanted to be President himself, or even just do his part to serve the progressive “dream” he talked about in 1980 he should have been McGovern’s VP nominee in 1972. McGovern desperately wanted him to, and according to internal polling that was the one combination that could have plausibly beat Nixon. Barring that, Ted should have been the champion for “McGovernism” during the 1976 primary—his name recognition alone would have won him the nomination almost assuredly, and if not, he would have made a respectable showing that proved progressive liberalism was still viable in the party. Alas, Ted picked literally the single worst possible cycle to run, and all he accomplished was making the Democrats divided and weak against the more charismatic Ronald Reagan. Ted Kennedy inadvertently did a lot of damage to his own party and the cause of leftism with his actions in the fateful elections of ’72 and ’80. Nowadays all his 1980 run is remembered for is the latest proof that challenging a sitting president in the primary is political suicide.

From then on, the speech descends into a bit of a rambling mess of platitudes about “choice” and “the future” and the usual spiel you hear a million times in political oration. Something notable is, Carter apparently cannot do basic math and/or did not proofread this speech, since he apparently thinks the election of 2000 is “four elections after this one” when it’s actually five away. Is it a minor error? Yes. Is it something that should have been caught by Carter or any competent speech proofreader on a read-through? Yes. Is it noticeable for listeners like myself? Also yes. I actually did a double take and checked the math immediately after hearing that, and it made me shake my head and think “wow.”

I think Carter’s complete takedown of the GOP, his drawn out description of the bleak future under a Republican administration, sounds like fear-mongering, or at least it would have at that time. In a sense it’s unfounded scare-mongering based off the information he had in ’80, but…if you really think about it…every single thing Carter says in this part of the speech actually did come to pass. This was to date, the most in-depth and brutal condemnation of the other party a Democratic nominee threw down in the 20th Century (and almost certainly of all time). It makes this election which would bring Reaganism and Neoliberalism to power feel even more fateful than it already was. And yet a lot of this criticism still feels forced or misguided. For example, Carter is proud to heap condemnation on the Republicans for supposedly cutting military spending by a third, when this is something George McGovern also had wanted to do if he had been elected in ’72. And considering how bloated our military budget was even then, I don’t exactly find this that bad at all. It just feels weird hearing a Democrat chest bump about throwing more money at the military industrial complex is all–that’s usually the Republican’s favorite attack.

What’s really shocking during this whole section of the speech is how bored to tears the audience looks. Every time the camera pans to different audience members you see people who’ve literally fallen asleep, zoned out, or look agitated. At one point they even boo Carter (who smiles nervously) while the camera cuts to one woman in the audience in particular who seems to enjoy watching his discomfort. This is the only case in the modern, post-video era where I’ve ever seen or heard of a nominee getting booed like that, let alone a sitting President at his own re-nomination convention. I thought the same might happen to Hillary in 2016—and it may have come to pass had the Bernie supporters not been barred from the latter dates of the convention.

A lot of this speech is surprisingly angry. Carter’s very defensive and yelling into the microphone about the Republicans. In a way, it’s similar to Truman, whose speech was mostly negative against Congressional Republicans. But somehow, whether it be warranted or not, this address feels weaker. I think it’s because Truman was speaking from a position of strength, coming off a successful war which left America all-powerful and as the fifth term of the unprecedented FDR coalition. Carter however, is speaking from a position of profound, nearly unprecedented weakness. He was butting heads with his own party, he’d been challenged for the nomination, his term was defined by stagflation, oil shortages and the Iran hostage crisis, plus he just got booed by his own party a few minutes ago. So hearing him spend so much time yelling about Republican boogeymen and a supposed doomsday future should they win, it sounds like when Hillary spun yarns about Russia in 2016—deflection even if it was true. Also, a lot of Truman’s complaints were cited with specific dates and bills, while Carter’s diatribe is unsourced.

However, as I said before, a lot of what Carter is saying against Republicans here ended up being frighteningly accurate, and to be fair, a lot of those problems during his term were not his own fault. I think a speech like this would go over a lot better today when we’ve learned firsthand how cruel and reactionary the post-Reagan and post-Southern Strategy GOP quickly became. Ironically enough, Hillary would have been smart to copy this style in 2016, instead of just focusing on Trump’s offensiveness in 2016. This kind of apocalyptic picture of the Republicans would have been a lot better received today than 1980, and it would have been more effective than moralizing about Trump’s tweets.

This might have been a really good speech in another cycle and with another speaker, but as is, it’s extremely flawed and I don’t think it was particularly effective under those circumstances. In the first place, I don’t think the political landscape of 1980 was ready for a speech so negative towards the other party. It was too far-sighted; in 2004, 2008 or 2016 I think something in this vein would have killed it. Besides that, Carter was just the wrong person to give this kind of speech given his soft-spoken oration and especially after the humiliation of Ted’s insurrection. Beyond that, it’s too long and a bit too unfocused—I think these speeches have a natural half-life of 30 to 45 minutes and once you cross that, every minute after harms the speech exponentially. Finally, at this point, relying on FDR and company for political capital was starting to feel unearned and anachronistic. That old Liberal Era and 5th Party System had died eight years ago by this point and you could feel it in the air. Carter ought to have framed his party more effectively as the party of bold new ideas—but the two most recent candidates who had embodied these ideals were McGovern and Ted Kennedy, and Carter himself played a big part in silencing them. Plus, even if it wasn’t his fault, after 4 years of stagflation and oil shortages, talking about a bold new future would have felt impossible coming from Carter.

The balloons don’t even fall as they should have when this speech was over. I’d say this was a bad omen—like the giant fly landing on Hillary’s face at the 2016 town hall.

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