AN AMBITIOUS GOVERNOR announced his presidential candidacy in 1974; shortly thereafter, his campaign autobiography appeared, asking a simple question--"Why Not the Best?" The question bears repeating as America goes to the polls to decide an election more frightening than inspiring. The time has come to break with conventional wisdom, to realize that none of the three major candidates is even a plausible answer to Carter's question.
Harvard students, especially those who've listened to the likes of Richard Pipes, should realize the first, most obvious, reason why Ronald Reagan should be denied the presidency: in a world one decision away from nuclear conflagration, only the coolest of heads, the sanest of men, should be allowed to command our military. Obsessed with fears of Russian imperialism and spreading Marxism, neither Reagan nor his likely advisers fit that description. And even if the mushroom clouds never appear on the horizon, their "hard-nosed" approach to diplomacy seems likely to maintain and extend America's relationships with the "free world's" worst military dictators and tyrants.
Domestic considerations argue against Reagan as well. In the rush to increase defense spending and balance the budget, money for food stamps, for housing assistance, and for tuition loans will slide off the back of the Laffer curve into oblivion. More disturbing still is the Reagan pledge to trim government regulation drastically; should he succeed, it will mean the sacrifice of 40 years of progress, a return to the days when the nation's Hooker Chemicals searched for Love Canals, a return to the era when job safety was regarded as a socialistic measure interfering with productivity.
And the thought that Reagan may appoint a third of the Supreme Court if he is elected frightens those who understand the fragility of our Constitution. Should his court nominees share his views, the fundamental document of our society will soon come to reflect the paternalism, the prejudice and the morality of convenience that has marked the campaign of the former California governor.
John Anderson emerged at the Iowa debate, before the first GOP primary, as a spirited challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy of the Republican right. He still scores points with progressives on a few issues, but his genesis from the heart of the right belies his claim to be a truly new voice. Expressing dissatisfaction with the men the major parties have nominated, his National Unity campaign has steered a careful course between the Scylla of Reagan and the Charybdis of Carter, coupling social liberalism with a strong purgative dose of conservative economics.
Anderson's biggest claim to voters--that he alone has the guts to tell them what they don't want to hear--holds true to a certain extent. But his oldest call for sacrifice, the 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax, will mean real pain only for the poorest. And his recent moderation suggests that Anderson has come a little too near the White House, near enough that fantasies of actually becoming president have trimmed his sails and forced caution upon him.
Many will vote for Anderson as a gesture of protest--but it is only a protest against the extremism of Reagan and the incompetence of Carter, not against their basic policies, which Anderson shares, and not for anything new, which Anderson has failed to provide.
Apparent sincerity may be Anderson's strongest suit--but then again, the nation took that same bait from another candidate in 1976 and swallowed it whole. Duplicitous is too nice a word for the incumbent; he has proved himself a baldfaced liar. Just ask those who worked for him four years ago after he promised to reduce military spending, after he called nuclear power an undesirable "last resort," after he assured women that the Equal Rights Amendment would be a top priority of his administration.
America's economy has visited the nether reaches under Carter's guidance; yet his only response to the abject misery of millions is to emphasize the unfairness of life and induce a job-robbing recession. Abroad, despite his avowed commitment to "human rights," Carter has shared the acquisitive and paranoid biases of his predecessors. Be it in Cuba, where he tried to create his own missile crisis over the existence of a 15-year old Soviet combat brigade, be it in Iran, where he embraced the Shah and called him a man beloved by his people, be it in the Persian Gulf, where Carter stated without a gulp America's willingness to trade lives for oil, the Carter foreign policy has been disaster, brightened only by the Camp David summit. Young men born in 1960 and 1961 know this most clearly; called upon to register for the draft as a show of support for Carter's immoral adventurism, hundreds of thousands refused, and many others gave their names only for fear of the penalties.
Maybe the most dispiriting twist of the Carter presidency, though, has been the political self-interest with which he has approached both his stewardship of the nation and this presidential campaign. Unwilling to debate Ted Kennedy, Carter stayed in the White House citing his concern for the hostages. When it appeared his strategy was unraveling, he called the continuing Iran debacle "manageable" and packed his bags for a little politicking. This fall, realizing that his own shortcomings would be apparent to liberal viewers, the president boycotted a debate with John Anderson. Shamelessly cynical, Carter has run the longest, most intense re-election campaign in American history--reason enough to cast him out of office.
SO THIS ELECTION presents a dilemma: the three major candidates do not serve the presidency, and most votes for one will be votes cast against the others. Surely, the voters are reminded, there are gradations of evil. Surely, many reason, Carter is worth supporting, if only to keep Reagan away from the button and the Supreme Court. The argument is sound in some ways; Carter is perceptibly less unnerving than Reagan. But the difference between the men is not large enough to warrant support of Carter. If the incumbent represented the spirit of the Democratic Party, if he stood even in name for progressive social and economic policies, then Carter would win our support. But he represents only himself, a coldly ambitious unprincipled man who can do America little good and much harm.
A possible alternative is to stay away from the polls. But protest is only effective if it is also articulate, and in a nation where half the electorate regularly boycotts the ballot box, the no-shows will not be heard. Instead, the election represents a real chance for Americans to suggest new directions for national policy. As America's most successful socialist, Eugene V. Debs, once remarked, a citizen is better off voting "for what he wants and not getting it, than voting for what he doesn't want and getting it."
Debs' view reflects a long-term optimism that we share--voting for a "minor party" candidate could cost Carter the election, but we don't think Reagan will be able to devastate American in four years--at least not much more than Carter, given the same opportunity. And we do think that a vote for progressivism, for a candidate who represents social justice, will have an effect in the long run. Though the major parties will continue to dominate presidential politics, and the right will continue strong, the left will be given a rallying point, or at least a sign of hope.
It is true enough that Harvard students will not bear the brunt of Reagan's conservative program, just as it is also true that people from the socioeconomic background of most Harvard students might have much to gain from a Republican presidency. But budgets are already being slashed--it was Jimmy Carter who ignored Kennedy's calls for a massive employment program. And Carter represents at best a holding action; even where he is better than Reagan, he is not nearly good enough. Any man who defends denying Medicare funds for abortions because "life is unfair" cannot be fairly accused of more than a passing interest in social justice.
Americans cannot register a vote for peace by supporting Jimmy Carter, for he doesn't represent peace. Americans can't voice their demands for economic justice by backing Carter, for he has shown his lack of interest in the concept. Only by voting for someone who does represent the values of peace, equality and justice can we being the task of forming a constituency and creating a presence on the left.