clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Carter Scenario: how Trump's victory could fall apart

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States Win McNamee/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Donald Trump and Jimmy Carter don’t have a whole lot in common, personally. One is famously a born-again Christian who apologized for having “looked on a lot of women with lust,” who even critics concede is of unimpeachable character, and who has devoted much of his life to philanthropic pursuits including the eradication of an entire parasitic illness. The other is on his third marriage, publicly bragged about committing sexual assault, and ran a foundation that appears to be a massive tax scam with no public benefit.

But the early weeks of 2017 are suggesting that the two men’s presidencies might have more in common than you might imagine. On Obamacare especially, but also tax reform and US relations with Russia, Trump is showing himself to be out of step with congressional leaders of his own party, a sharp contrast with the close relationships between Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid; or George W. Bush, Trent Lott/Bill Frist, and Dennis Hastert.

The kind of distance, even hostility, between a president and Congress that Trump is demonstrating has a clear precedent in Carter. Like Trump, Carter came into office narrowly, but with a majority in both Houses; his Senate majority was far larger than Trump’s at 61, enough to break a filibuster. Each president’s party had benefited from sweeping the midterms two years prior. And then each began his presidency at odds with the congressional party.

In the case of Carter, the result was a presidency that accomplished few if any major Democratic legislative priorities. While a different Democratic president could very possibly have passed universal health care legislation and a law guaranteeing a job to any American who wants one — two ideas with widespread congressional support — Carter’s horrible relationship with Congress prevented any of that from getting done. Four years later, he was nearly toppled by a top congressional Democrat in the presidential primaries, and he left office after a single term with few major domestic achievements to speak of.

It’s still early going, and to be fair, Carter faced some challenges that Trump will not. Carter’s Democratic Party was more ideologically heterodox than Trump’s Republicans, including as it did a few outright segregationists like James Eastland. But Carter nonetheless serves as a sobering warning of what can happen to a party’s agenda when an adversarial president refuses to play ball with Congress.

Carter’s win, like Trump’s, appeared to signal the beginning of a major period of policy change

Sign says: "Silver Rights Now, Jobs for All, Support Hawkins-Humphrey Bill"
A rally for Hawkins-Humphrey, featuring Jesse Jackson.

Thomas J. O'Halloran

Jimmy Carter was not supposed to win the 1976 election. In the primary, he faced a bevy of candidates who were better-known and better-liked by the Democratic elite. It was the first year the primary system operated in full gear, and it featured the most crowded field until, well, the 2016 Republican contest. Rep. Mo Udall and Sens. Henry Jackson, Birch Bayh, and Frank Church all had superior name recognition and establishment support to Carter, and there were a few outsider candidates as well (George Wallace from the segregationist right, Fred Harris from the left, Jerry Brown from wherever Jerry Brown comes from).

If, say, Udall or Bayh had won the primary, they could’ve counted on close relationships on Capitol Hill once they took office. They were well-known and broadly ideologically in sync with the congressional party. Carter was another story. He was a no-name former governor from the South, with limited connections to the national party.

Carter entered the presidency at a time when liberals had been poised and ready to pass major, transformative legislation, biding their time through the Nixon and Ford years. There was wide support in the party — including from Carter — for single-payer health care, and while ultimate passage was unlikely, the odds of some kind of universal coverage passing were significant; Nixon, after all, had put out a plan not unlike the Affordable Care Act three decades later.

A guaranteed minimum income plan had passed the House, and universal day care had passed both houses of Congress only to be vetoed by Nixon. Momentum was growing for the Humphrey-Hawkins Act, a proposal to guarantee a government job to anyone who wants one so long as unemployment is above 3 percent. Carter endorsed it during the campaign, as did the leading figures and institutions of the civil rights movement (including Coretta Scott King) and the labor movement. "For a brief period in 1976, Humphrey-Hawkins looked like a sure thing," historian Jefferson Cowie writes in his magisterial book Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.

The policy groundwork was laid, and with the 1974 midterms Democrats grew their congressional majorities dramatically, and in the process elected a bevy of liberal Northerners known as the "Watergate babies," including people like Chris Dodd, Pat Leahy, Henry Waxman, and George Miller. The party was getting more liberal, and less reliant on Southern racists who tended to resist programs that give black people money or health care.

Just as Trump emerged as leader of the Republican Party after Paul Ryan and others spent a decade laying out an ambitious agenda of tax cuts, Medicare privatization, and safety net rollback, Carter took over as the surprise leader of the Democrats at a moment that represented the best chance for American social democracy since the New Deal.

Carter alienated hugely powerful members of Congress basically as soon as he took office (sound familiar?)

Water spigot in a desert
Water projects, man.

And Carter blew it. He absolutely, totally blew it. And he blew it mostly because he completely blundered his way through dealing with Congress.

The original sin of his presidency was his handling of a water bill. It was boring, run-of-the-mill legislation, but he tried his hardest to turn it into an utter catastrophe. On February 22, a month after taking office, Carter decided to eliminate 19 water projects in 17 states from the budget. He explained the problems with the projects in a letter to Congress:

One project would be built in an earthquake zone, potentially jeopardizing the lives of thousands of people. One project appeared to be in violation of an international treaty, and Canada has repeatedly asked the United States to suspend construction. One project would have resulted in a federal investment of $1.4 million for each individual landowner benefitting from the project, and only about 60 landowners would be benefitted.

That indeed sounds bad! The water projects were pure pork, which doesn't often make for good public policy from an environmental, safety, or cost-effectiveness standpoint. But the thing about pork is that it's intensely valued by members of Congress, and in cutting the 19 water projects, Carter alienated some very powerful committee chairs.

Russell Long, the conservative Democratic chair of the Senate Finance Committee, saw multiple projects of his gone. Senate Budget Committee chair and former Democratic vice presidential nominee Edmund Muskie suggested he might hold up the budget resolution that year to save a project in his home state of Maine. A project connecting two rivers on the border between Mississippi and Alabama was canceled, despite being sponsored by Rep. Tom Bevill (D-AL) and Sen. John Stennis (D-MS), who controlled the appropriations subcommittees in charge of water projects in their respective chambers.

"The way in which many members of Congress found out about their endangered projects was as harmful to the White House as the proposed deletion of the projects themselves," Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly write in Jimmy Carter and the Water Wars: Presidential Influence and the Politics of Pork. "Some members of Congress learned of the status of their projects in the newspaper rather than hearing from the president or the Office of Congressional Liaison."

Eventually, Congress presented Carter with a choice: either accept an appropriations bill that includes both the water projects and economic stimulus measures Carter favored, or get neither. Carter chose to sign the bill, water projects and all. His brave stand against pork had accomplished exactly nothing, except alienating key legislative allies whose support he needed to get just about anything else done. Carter's first budget director, Bert Lance, called the decision to fight the water projects "the worst political mistake he made … its effects lasted the rest of his term and doomed any hopes we ever had of developing a good effective working relationship with Congress." Carter himself later conceded, "The issue of water projects was one that caused the deepest breach between me and the Democratic leadership."

Now, upon his inauguration, Donald Trump has somewhat patched up relationships with former enemies in Congress, like Paul Ryan, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John McCain (though maybe not Lindsey Graham). But does anyone really doubt that Trump could — by picking dumb fights or running his mouth or escalating disputes that do not need to be escalated — achieve the kind of mass alienation that Carter did? And if that was enough to largely derail Carter’s domestic agenda, could it be enough to derail Trump’s?

After the water bill fiasco, Carter couldn’t get anything done

Ted Kennedy on the left looking bemused, Carter smiling on the right
Ted Kennedy and his soon-to-be nemesis Jimmy Carter.

Mikki Ansin/Getty Images

As you are likely aware if you are reading this article in 2017 or later, Carter did not wind up signing a law guaranteeing full employment, or universal health care, or universal day care, or a minimum income. That’s not just because of the water bill blunder. But it was substantially due to that, and due to him applying the same bull-in-a-china-shop approach to other issues.

Take health care. He faced heavy pressure from the United Auto Workers and other unions, as well as congressional liberals like Ted Kennedy, to introduce a national health insurance plan, but he kept delaying before ultimately deciding he had totally different priorities on health care than the rest of his party did.

"Given his fiscal conservatism," historian Martin Halpern writes, "Carter's health care focus in 1977 was on legislation to control hospital costs. Only if fiscal prudence were established first would it be sensible to move forward and spend money on a new program, Carter thought." Kennedy and the unions, trying to be pragmatic, offered a new universal proposal in which private insurers would compete, much as in Obamacare. But Carter refused to endorse even that much. He didn't even want a single major bill. He wanted a series of smaller bills, with cost controls coming first and coverage expansion coming later, if at all. Kennedy and the unions refused to settle for something not offering universal coverage, and the effort died.

Full employment was a similar story. "In March 1977, just a few months after taking office, the Carter administration privately reached the conclusion 'that the Humphrey-Hawkins bill is both unnecessary and undesirable," Cowie writes. "Administration officials at least wanted to remove numeric employment goals, focus the bill on inflation, drop the idea of the federal government as employer of last resort, and emphasize flexibility over requirements and timetables. In sum, the administration wanted Humphrey-Hawkins in name only." Carter chief economist Charles Schultze was a particularly influential opponent, arguing that ensuring 3 percent unemployment would trigger unacceptable levels of inflation.

It's hard to overstate how out of step Carter was with the rest of the Democratic Party. Proponents of the bill, Cowie explains, included the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the National Council of Churches, the Urban League, the Congressional Black Caucus, and major Hispanic and Mexican-American groups. Coretta Scott King personally threatened "serious trouble" if the administration did not get on board. It was included in the 1976 Democratic platform; House Majority Leader Tip O'Neill called Humphrey-Hawkins that platform's "centerpiece."

But Carter and Schultze nonetheless demanded that Humphrey and Hawkins water down the bill until it was functionally meaningless. The sponsors held off for a while before ultimately caving, figuring that Carter would never sign a real full employment bill into law, and that passing an anemic and symbolic bill was better than nothing. And so it was that the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978 was signed into law. Today, it's mainly remembered for its requirement that the Federal Reserve submit a biannual report on monetary policy to Congress, with the chair of the Fed testifying before the House and Senate on its contents. It does not guarantee Americans a job.

This could be Trump’s future

Now, it’s hardly guaranteed that Trump will be as ideologically distant from his congressional party as Carter was. His tax plan and health care proposal are very much in line with Paul Ryan’s agenda, perhaps even coming in a bit to Ryan’s right.

But Trump has also been vocal about wanting to achieve universal health coverage, a goal completely at odds with that of the congressional party. He’s struck a populist tone on taxes, in flagrant contradiction to his own proposals, and his Treasury nominee Steve Mnuchin has promised that “[a]ny reductions we have in upper-income taxes will be offset by less deductions so that there will be no absolute tax cut for the upper class.” Trump’s agenda on trade and infrastructure is more interventionist than just about any Republican in Congress.

Starting with Obamacare, it’s easy to imagine Trump getting into clashes with Congress mirroring those of Carter. Ryan offers one Obamacare replacement plan; Trump rejects it for not being universal. Ryan argues that Trump needs a plan; Trump sets up a commission to develop a plan over the course of months. When the plan is released, it sparks a backlash with congressional conservatives. And so on and so on.

That might not prevent any meaningful change from occurring, as it did under Carter. But it could slow down some of Trump’s efforts in a real way, and totally derail others. We simply haven’t had a president this antagonistic toward, and out of step with, his own party in Congress in three decades. And our last example suggests that Trump has a very bumpy road ahead, with less legislative success than you might imagine.

Watch: Republicans have one major problem on Obamacare

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.