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My latest column at The Week [1] is all about an analogy (originating with Corey Robin’s essay [2] from back in January) that’s getting some renewed play in the wake of the AHCA fiasco:

Carter was what Robin calls a “disjunctive president,” someone who leads a coalition that was once dominant but is now in the late stages of fragmentation. The disjunctive leader’s aim is to reorient that coalition around the novel challenges of that political moment, and thereby to restore their coalition to primacy. But he’s unable to herd the necessary cats, and is therefore succeeded by a “reconstructive” president, someone who is capable of articulating that response and following through with action, in part because he needs a new coalition more naturally built around that response.

At the time the article was written, there were already potent reasons to find this Trump-Carter analogy plausible, in spite of the wild differences in personality and ideology between the two presidents. Both Carter and Trump ran as outsiders to the established power structure of their parties, and faced fierce resistance from the old guard. Both ran on heterodox programs and scrambled what had been traditional electoral coalitions, and both won very narrowly. The increasing friction between the White House and the GOP congressional leadership further confirms the analogy, as does the planned shift to “easy victories” over taxes. As Robin wrote back in January:

One of the signature promises of the Trump campaign is already turning into a curse.


Where all this will lead is anyone’s guess, but the most likely outcome is that Trump and the GOP will fall back on what Republicans know how to do best: tax cuts and deregulation. At moments of articulation, holding fast to the regime’s orthodoxies can be intoxicating sources of power, as Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush learned. At moments of disjunction, that kind of steadfastness can lead to disaster. [Corey Robin [3]]

But there’s a problem with the analogy: Plenty of observers at the time thought the 2008 election ushered in a “reconstructive” presidency and a new dispensation. Those hopes were bitterly disappointed — beginning with disappointment that the best health-care bill the Democrats could pass was the insurer-friendly Affordable Care Act. And today, the possibilities that Robin articulates depend on a factor that at least in 2008 was present but now — so far, at least — is absent. That is a “reconstructive” figure poised for triumph on the Democratic side.

Well, actually, there’s one obvious possibility:

As Douthat points out, Sanders ran an insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton much as Reagan ran against Gerald Ford in 1976. And Sanders represents a throwback to an earlier form of unapologetic big-government liberalism that had been largely repudiated after the Mondale debacle in 1984, just as Reagan represented a throwback to an earlier form of anti-government conservatism that had been largely repudiated after the Goldwater debacle in 1964.

Other [5] observers [6] have noted Sanders’ ability to speak successfully to Trump voters and their concerns, and asked why the Democrats aren’t embracing a populist politics of their own, redeeming the very promises on which Trump himself will be unable to deliver.

There are a variety of reasons to be skeptical of the analogy — but my focus is on how the progressive response to the AHCA debacle shows that they haven’t actually grasped the nettle of what drove Trump, and what it will take to “reconstruct” politics in the wake of a catastrophic Trump presidency:

In the wake of the AHCA’s failure, there has been an increase in support for a single-payer system, largely in safe Democratic areas [7]. But Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency because he promised a better deal than ObamaCare, and single-payer — even if it’s a good idea — isn’t going to be the banner under which the Democrats can plausibly bring a new coalition to dominance, because ultimately it would be just that: a good idea. The Democrats have never lacked for individual ideas that poll well or have serious policy work behind them. That’s not their most fundamental problem.

Disjunctive presidents have a genuine grasp of some essential aspects of the crisis the nation faced and how it threatened their governing coalition. They ask some of the most important and correct questions in their campaigns, which is why they are able to win, and their only hope of success is in addressing those questions correctly.

Carter paved the way for Reagan when he ran in opposition to school busing and courted the newly awakened white evangelical vote; when he championed deregulation of finance and the airlines; when he appointed Paul Volcker to the Fed; and when he responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan did not win the presidency by saying Goldwater’s libertarian, fiercely anti-communist conservatism was the eternal truth (which, to be fair, is pretty much what he did say when he supported Goldwater in 1964). Rather, he said that in the “present crisis” government was the problem rather than the solution.

The “present crisis” in America, domestically speaking, is not that the ACA is a kludgy solution to distributing health care. Even the alarming rise in American mortality is not due to the persistent limitations and failures of our health-care system. Though the pharmaceutical companies bear more than their share of the blame for the opioid crisis [8], the deeper roots of the rise in mortality are economic [9], the collapse in expectations for prosperity in swathes of rural and working-class America.

The populist explanation for that crisis is the devouring of the public weal by special interests — and left- and right-wing populists mostly disagree on which interests to blame. But the promise to restore that ladder to prosperity is what got Trump elected. The Democrats need a champion who can redeem that promise — which there is every reason to expect Trump cannot deliver on.

There may or may not be a place for championing single-payer health care as part of that message. The last thing the Democrats need is to be scared of their own shadow when it comes to big, apparently unlikely initiatives, and under a big umbrella there will be room for dozens if not hundreds of policy ideas, some of which will barely cohere. But the big idea under which all those policies cohere must be a response to that central crisis, that explains why we no longer have a broadly shared prosperity and how to restore it.

When the Democrats have found their “reconstructive” Reagan — whether it’s Sanders or someone [10] who inherits [11] his banner — it’ll be obvious, because he or she will talk as he did, and articulate how in the present crisis their philosophy will be responsive.

Read the whole thing there [1].

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Sanders:Trump::Reagan:Carter?"

#1 Comment By collin On March 29, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

Ross did have a fun analogy with Reagan/Sanders and I do remember in 1980 concerns of electing an older B actor to the White House. And there is significant good points here:
1) Sanders has been a great leader at protecting ACA and visiting across the nation with the trip to WV (discussing opiads) and MS suppporting a Nissan union contract. (Remember Southern states carried HRC Primary victory.) If Sanders does some visits to support agricultural pickers in Texas & California, Beware!
2) The Trump & Carter analogy works except their personalities are the complete opposite. Nobody thought Jimmy was not moral (maybe too moral) or he did not work hard enough, but he was over his head.

Probably the biggest problem is Sanders is too simplistic in his campaigning and blames everything on billionaires/millionaires and the Democrats are slowly improving with well off voters. Also, it is likely Joe Biden running on the same issues as HRC probably wins.

#2 Comment By Will Harrington On March 29, 2017 @ 1:11 pm

But by any measure we are ridiculously prosperous. The problem isn’t a ladder of prosperity that has broken down, it is that we have replaced family and community (which do provide happiness for we tribally wired humans) with the pursuit of pleasure through novel experiences and things, which is really simply addictive behavior because desire indulged in this way is never satisfied but merely increases.

#3 Comment By Stephen Dedalus On March 29, 2017 @ 1:34 pm

Millman is firmly in the “I WILL NOT learn from my mistakes” camp, hey? Trump got just what he (actually) wanted from AHCA. There was no “fiasco” whatsoever.

Noah, you should begin with “Trump is smarter than me: what is he up to now?”

#4 Comment By Weldon On March 29, 2017 @ 3:31 pm

That leaves out an important part, though. Trump’s opponent also ran on “the promise to restore that ladder to prosperity”, but it involved paying for people to learn skills other people are willing to pay them for, and (this was mentioned a lot less) for them move out of places with little to no economic activity (Kevin Williamson caught hell for saying it out loud, ironically, but it’s implicit in every response from the Left: we really can’t afford to keep subsidizing a geographical distribution that is making people poor, sick, and miserable (and Republican)).

So it’s not just that Democrats need a ladder, Democrats need a ladder that people are willing to hear about.

#5 Comment By Noah172 On March 29, 2017 @ 3:48 pm

In order for Sanders to be Reagan to Trump’s Carter:

Trump would need failures and crises as damaging as inflation and Iran to Carter (no, the health care fiasco is not on that level)

Trump would have to face intraparty divisions so deep as to lead to a renomination challenge of a gravity of Kennedy’s against Carter (or even Buchanan’s much less electorally fruitful challenge to Bush 1992)

Sanders would have to exploit fissures in Trump’s coalition as deep as crime, welfare, and anti-Communism were to the 1980 Democrats (i.e., Sanders can’t just say that Trump screwed up on health care, so let’s have single-payer [which is neither as popular nor practical an idea as Sanders and fans think it is]; rather, Sanders would need to address more and more potent issues to pry away pieces of Trump’s coalition when Trump inevitably points out Sanders’ serious conflicts with Trump’s populist fan base)

Sanders, who will be 79 in 2020, would have to allay even greater concerns about age and vigor than either Reagan (69 in 1980) or Trump (70 in 2016, and campaigning sunup to sundown for months on end)

#6 Comment By Noah172 On March 29, 2017 @ 3:52 pm

If Sherrod Brown is to take up Sanders’ banner, he would need to win re-election in Ohio in 2018 — and Ohio went comfortably for Trump (and gave Senator Portman an even larger victory).

#7 Comment By peanut On March 29, 2017 @ 5:37 pm

What all those takes ignore is the role of contingency: if those helicopters don’t go down in the desert, we plausibly have a two term president Carter, and a GOP that went twice for hardcore conservatives, and lost twice.

#8 Comment By EngineerScotty On March 29, 2017 @ 5:39 pm

I’ve long thought that Obama was more likely the liberal Nixon, not a liberal Reagan. He succeeded a President who started the disunification process of his Party, and governed in an ideological zeitgeist that may well have opposed his instincts. (Nixon, many are fond of pointing out, was fond of wage and price controls and other aspects of command economies, and infamously took the US off the Gold Standard).

This analogy (along with Trump/Carter) fails in other ways–both Carter and Obama were honest men and largely scandal-free, whereas Nixon and Trump are two of the dirtier characters to occupy the White House. Obama’s last two years, in which he was largely a lame duck due to the GOP taking the Senate, can possibly be compared to the Ford Administration).

But if you believe Presidential history to be cyclical, Trump as Carter isn’t that farfetched.

#9 Comment By Prof. Woland On March 29, 2017 @ 5:53 pm

Elizabeth Warren is a better fit than Sanders.

#10 Comment By Noah172 On March 29, 2017 @ 6:33 pm

Weldon wrote:

Trump’s opponent also ran on “the promise to restore that ladder to prosperity”, but it involved paying for people to learn skills other people are willing to pay them for, and (this was mentioned a lot less) for them move out of places with little to no economic activity

It also involved limitless importation of Third Worlders to undercut Americans.

#11 Comment By Donald On March 29, 2017 @ 7:38 pm

Remember how the more ridiculous Obama supporters used to blather on about 11 dimensional chess and how well Obama played it? You see the same thing in diehard Trump supporters. It’s apparently a disease of the partisan brain. Trump isn’t smart– he’s exactly what he looks like, a narcisstic demagogue who won against a set of clowns in the Republican Party and an overconfident and arrogant Democrat with a lot of baggage and supporters sunk deep in denial. Which, again, seems like a common theme in our politics these days.

Sanders himself is probably too old to be the next Reagan, but the opening is there. The biggest problem will be the Democratic Party establishment.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 29, 2017 @ 8:15 pm

I am unable to get passed the Iranian hostage issue that literally destroyed his tenure. It just blighted every step.

Since, no such event colors the executive of Pres. Trump, this a tough slog.

Pres. Ford, in the wake of Watergate . . . Pardoning Pres Nixon for non crime — Pres. Reagan’s insurgent didn’t amount to much.

I would echo some previous comments, it’s just not enough to make the comparisons.

#13 Comment By Pear Conference On March 30, 2017 @ 2:49 am

Carter, against all odds, got Israel and Egypt to sign a peace treaty that still stands today.

I’m sure Jared Kushner will be forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace any day now, when he’s not busy reinventing government.

#14 Comment By Pear Conference On March 30, 2017 @ 2:59 am

Will Harrington said:

“We have replaced family and community (which do provide happiness for we tribally wired humans) with the pursuit of pleasure through novel experiences and things, which is really simply addictive behavior because desire indulged in this way is never satisfied but merely increases.”

I should print that sentence out and post it over my desk. Nicely put.

#15 Comment By Mark Thomason On March 30, 2017 @ 8:20 am

Sanders and Trump did not have the same answers, not on policy, but they did have the same basic approach of rejecting the establishment answers and listening to voters, or in Trump’s case pretending to do so.

They have much in common, and what they have in common is what won for Trump. That is why Sanders could have beaten Trump, and neither Hillary nor the DNC’s desired Hillary-redux can win.

#16 Comment By Tony D. On March 31, 2017 @ 4:23 pm

“The biggest problem will be the Democratic Party establishment….”

…which of course is intractable. They are determined to “establish” themselves as the Whigs circa 1850.

#17 Comment By OhhJim On March 31, 2017 @ 7:28 pm

Another similarity between Trump and Carter is that both faced unpopular opponents who ran poor campaigns. Their narrow victories over these terrible opponents caused many to miss the fact that neither Trump nor Carter were actually competent leaders, and were/are basically roadkill for a strong opponent in the next election.

#18 Comment By CharleyCarp On April 3, 2017 @ 1:38 pm

Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency because he promised a better deal than ObamaCare

Yes he did.

As we all know, it was a very narrow victory, and any one of 17 issues going the other way would have changed the result. The President was quite emphatic about providing a better deal than the ACA, and remains so even now. The margin was also provided by people who thought a President Trump would scale back military intervention in the Middle East. And by people responding to his promise bring high wage union manufacturing back to the Upper Midwest (when the only conceivable positive impact of his trade policies will be an increase in non-union mostly automated manufacturing in the South).

It’s fun to think about what might follow, but the n is way too small, and the effect of candidates’ personal attributes way too large to say anything meaningful about 2020 and beyond at this point.