Having left office 32 years ago, former President Jimmy Carter recently surpassed Herbert Hoover for the longest post-presidency. Like Hoover, a fellow victim of circumstance, Carter’s presidency was cut short by events largely beyond his control. This ushered in the Reagan era, in which Carter’s problems seemingly disappeared, partly a result of policy, but largely a result of luck. Since then, the Right’s canonization of Reagan’s Peace Through Strength strategy served as foil to Carter’s pie-in-the-sky idealism. But today, as Carter celebrates his 89th birthday, the Right may see its new found embracement of civil libertarianism and peace, as more closely aligned with Carter separated from the false perception, than the reality of Reagan.
While many ex-presidents prefer to remain in the shadows and not comment on their predecessors, Carter has had an expressive post-presidency. He speaks frankly and honestly with no jabs pulled for political consideration. During a recent interview with Der Spiegal, referring to the NSA’s invasion of Americans’ privacy, Carter declared Obama’s America as not a “functioning democracy.” Moreover, like 51 percent of Republicans, he took the side of whistleblower Edward Snowden, even upon Obama’s characterization of Snowden as a traitor for assisting the enemies of the State, i.e. the American people. The Right seemingly approved.
The Right’s growing attention to civil liberties backs Carter’s views, particularly on the issue of drones. Last year, in a New York Times editorial, Carter excoriated the Obama administration for its poor record on human rights, focusing on its targeted assassinations and collateral killings of hundreds across the Middle East with unmanned drones. Obama’s drone use was the same issue that fueled the Right’s brightest moment of 2013. Senator Rand Paul’s 13 hour filibuster of the nomination of John Brennan as CIA chief, brought attention to the administration’s unconstitutional use of drones. Overnight, the long-abused issue of civil liberties became a rallying call for the Right, transforming Paul into a superstar and leading contender for the GOP’s 2016 presidential nomination. The sentiment of this rallying call differed very little from what Jimmy Carter expressed in the Times. Only a small minority of Rightists, such as Ann Coulter, disagreed. Rather, Paul inspired an overwhelming majority of the Right. For them, Carter’s emphasis on the Rule of Law, which they had always denigrated as ineffective, turned out to be a more powerful mobilizer than Reagan’s Peace Through Strength.
That fact has been demonstrated also in the Right’s new found respect for peace. President Bush’s military adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan spawned war-weariness among the Right. Iraq especially encouraged the Right to value the principle of using war only as a last resort. President Obama’s adventurism has had the opposite effect on the Left. Whereas it stood firmly against President Bush on Iraq, it has been silent on Libya, Yemen, and most recently, Syria. The strongest voices against Obama’s intervention come not from the Left, but the Right. Rather than agreeing to the Peace Through Strength policy of bombarding Syria to “punish” Assad for using chemical weapons, the Right called for restraint and diplomatic resolution. This change in course seemingly mirrored Carter’s March 2003 New York Times editorial warning against invading Iraq. It also reflected his use of peaceful means in resolving volatile situations throughout the world, from the freeing of American hostages in North Korea to the resolution of the Egypt-Israel dispute through the Camp David Accords. On the other hand, Peace Through Strength in the Reagan era, saw American military engagements throughout Latin America, and similar to Obama’s desired handling of Syria, bombings of Lebanon and Libya to punish regimes for acting badly. The Right has turned 360 degrees from this position. It now apparently favors Carter’s thoughtful approach to peace. An approach it often and still mistakenly derides as weak.
In addition to the Right’s unknowing abandonment of Peace Through Strength for the policies of Carter, civil liberties and militancy are not the only issues on which Carter and the Right now see eye-to-eye. Efforts to end the War on Drugs and decriminalize marijuana, which have gained traction on the Right, match Carter’s position, in opposition to Reagan’s escalation of the War on Drugs. Abortion is another matter on which Carter and the Right share common ground. During the past convention, Carter called for a Democratic Party platform backing limits on abortion. Openness in government may be yet another issue for the Right to join Carter as it continues to criticize Obama’s failed promise of transparency. And as the Right calls for less government regulation, many forget that the rampant deregulation of the 1980s credited to Reagan, actually began under Carter.
Nevertheless, there are some issues the Right will likely never share with Carter: his fervent internationalism and desire to further regulate money in politics. Likewise, the Right will likely continue to follow Reagan on supply-side economics and entitlement reform. But the Right’s shift is more than evident. Perhaps unbeknownst to them, the 1980 election is being waged inside their movement. As Carter begins his 90th trip around the sun today, it may just be his “radical idealism” with the growing momentum to guide the future of the Right.