Search For a Man Named Carter | The Nation


Search For a Man Named Carter

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Another source of the rising tide of doubt that has pulled down Carter's initial shoo-in lead over President Ford is his refusal to allow his interrogators to push him into setting forth the fine-grain detail of his programmatic proposals. On tax reform, for example, he has refused to go beyond an outline of the directions in which he would move, citing as prime objectives elimination of tax shelters on investment income, and termination of the tax breaks accorded a wide variety of special interests. Once that is done, he contends, it will be possible to adjust tax rates so as to shift the burden upward on the income scale, reducing the proportion now being paid by those in the middle and below.

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I know of no economist of any persuasion who would defend the grossly unjust working of the present federal tax structure; even the politicians who are responsible for it justify it only on grounds of expediency; liberal and conservative voices in the media joined in a chorus to condemn the scandalous special interest grab bag logrolled through the current session of Congress; and most political scientists agree that basic tax reform is central to any effective wrestling with the bureaucratic horrors generated by welfare, agricultural price supports, energy, arms procurement, foreign trade and the rest. This would seem to be, as Carter has treated it, an inescapable issue in the 1976 Presidential campaign. Yet, prudent politicians accept the dictum that tax reform too is in the "no-win" category.

The vulnerability comes about because, as Carter insists, it is impossible to present a proposed revenue code in the course of a political campaign; the interactions of the present complex tax structure are such that no single element can be isolated and appraised in terms of what a change would mean to a taxpayer in a given bracket. Yet that is precisely the kind of question the media criticize Carter for refusing to answer--much to the delight of President Ford's handlers, who charge that the Democrat's refusal to go beyond general principles indicates either ignorance or dishonesty, or both.

At this closing stage of the campaign an attempt to separate what Carter has said from what has been said about what he was alleged to have said is akin to the search for the Dead Sea Scrolls. The torrent of words his candidacy has generated since.he began to be taken seriously last spring has been largely devoted to the mechanics of the campaign-the means by which the candidates' handlers sought to project the image; the strategy of shaping the appeal to the various interest groups, and their presumed response. Since the visual media report the campaign principally in three-minute time segments, controversy is emphasized to arouse audience interest, and compression eliminates the kind of qualifications necessary to place any serious statement in context. And increasingly the print media follow the lead of the TV managers in determining their own priorities and treatment. The emphasis of mass media coverage is now almost wholly on style and personality, and any effort to give the voters direct access to the 'substance of the campaign--as in the case of the Presidential debates--is written off as boring.

Beginning with the tape of Carter's discussion at the Center eighteen months ago, I started examining similar first-hand documentation of the, candidate's views and attitudes. I find there is a quite voluminous public record available-most of it in magazines, the background sections of newspapers, and low-rated television discussion programs that do not intrude upon the daily quick fix of news and commentary upon which most voters presumably rely. Depending on these sources alone (I have had no part in this campaign, and indeed have not been exposed in person to the charms of either candidate), it is my conclusion that both candidates have done all that reasonably could be expected of them to expose their views on the issues, demonstrate their capacity to handle the duties of the office, and provide a basis on which the voters could make a judgment as to their character and integrity. Ford's record as Congressman, Vice President and unelected President is available to demonstrate how he could be expected to perform if he were given a full term in the White House. Governor Carter's sharply contrasting approach was spelled out at the very beginning of the campaign, and has been elaborated in position papers, speeches and extended discussion with anyone who could advance a reasonable claim to his time.

In tracing out this record I find no instance in which Carter has departed from the principles he originally enunciated, or has significantly modified his position on the programs he has outlined. The trivial nature of the "evidence" of evasiveness that has occupied so much media attention can be seen in the controversy over whether a single reporter once heard him say he thought he could effect economies that would reduce defense expenditures by $15 billion rather than the $7 billion he usually projects--a matter of no arithmetic significance in a budget of such magnitude, and certainly no basis for suggesting that, a man of his military background is bent on recklessly reducing the nation's defenses. Yet it is this kind of hyperactive adversary journalism that provides the ammunition President Ford has used, in an echo of Spiro Agnew's alliterative assault upon George McGovern, to charge that his opponent "wanders, he wavers, he waffles, and he wiggles."

In the post-convention period Carter has found himself running against two media stereotypes--his own, and that of Gerald Ford. The President's media image is hardly flattering, but it is politically useful: a man who is conceded to be honest and well-intentioned can be forgiven if he also is portrayed as stupid and inept, and despite all the vast advantages of incumbency, this image has conferred upon Ford the underdog role, invoking sympathy when he is attacked, or even questioned. On the other hand, when Carter displays the innate toughmindedness and sophistication which contrasts so sharply with the media image of a moralizing provincial, he arouses the suspicion that he is a political Jekyll and Hyde.

It does not follow that those who have had a chance to see Carter in context, without the distorting lens of media coverage, would necessarily vote for him. He is not satisfactory to those on the Left who believe that the materialist American society is hopelessly corrupt and will respond only to radical restructuring. He is a moderate reformist who makes no promise of ideological innovation, but argues that we can follow the welfare route to attain a tolerable degree of social justice within the limits of representative democracy and marketplace economics. But he is, as I noted at the outset, a systems engineer by temperament and training, and there is no doubt that he would make a massive attempt to reorganize the flabby, inefficient federal bureaucracy. In that sense, then, he is not satisfactory to those on either the Left or Right who believe we must dismantle the central structures of government and transfer autonomy to institutions closer to the people.

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