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IS Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis another Jimmy Carter? Dukakis doesn't want voters to think so--but by running in the Carter mold, he may actually vanquish an opponent who can't separate himself from President Reagan.
Political pundits like to compare the two governors as two technocrats, who are concerned with getting the job done. Both run not as saviors, but as competent managers. And both have built a reputation for integrity and hard work.
But Dukakis cringes from the Carter comparisons, recalling negative polls and hostages more than policy achievements. Bush is also attuned to past polls--after all, his model, Reagan, was one of the most popular presidents. But Dukakis would be wise to avoid a game he cannot and should not want to win. Rhetoric and dubious records are what he should be running against; a substantive record like Carter's is what he should be proposing.
Instead of composing a foreign policy based primarily on rhetoric, Carter made more tangible gains in four years than Reagan has in eight. He orchestrated the Camp David accords, normalized relations with China, and pushed the Panama Canal treaty through Congress.
These accomplishments, like the Marshall Plan and the Cuban Missile Crisis, represent some of the few postwar foreign policy successes of the United States. Despite the continued regional difficulties, a rejection of the canal treaty, which Reagan backed, would have inflamed Latin American nationalism and anti-American sentiment even more. And General Omar Torrijos, the head of the Panamanian government, said he would have destroyed the canal if the treaty were rejected--which would have eliminated a vital strategic and economic asset. Despite the continued strife in the Middle East, at least on one front, Israel has much less to worry about. Outside of the INF treaty, what like acheivements will Reagan be remembered for?
Critics say Carter's emphasis on human rights, which targeted oppressive regimes, paved the way for the Soviet Union to pursue its expansionary policy in the Third World. As a result, they claim, America was humiliated, as seen in the hostage crisis in Iran.
But as weak as he may have appeared, Carter never stooped to trading arms for hostages. And he hardly ignored the abuses of our adversaries. He was quick to denounce violations of human rights in Soviet-bloc countries. Under his administration, the flow of Jewish emigration from Russia reached its highest level. He also campaigned for human rights in right-wing regimes: his Administration's diplomatic pressure spurred the release of thousands of victims of state repression in Brazil and Indonesia. Carter "stood tall" to all opponents of human rights, on the Left and Right, unlike the Reagan administration.
While Carter was criticized for the hostage crisis in Iran, he did manage to get the hostages released--an achievement Reagan has yet to accomplish in Lebanon, with far fewer lives at stake.
Republicans may whine about the "gloom and doom" and the rampant inflation of the Carter years. Soaring inflation and interest rates during the Carter years had less to do with national policies than with an unfavorable world financial scene caused by the energy crisis. And the drop in oil prices during the Reagan years, likewise, should not be credited to the Administration.
The Reagan Administration has failed to reach much of the country with its economic gains, but its irresponsible fiscal policy managed to mortgage the entire country's economic strength and future. Reaganomics is not even a shining success by supply-side standards--the president has all but ignored his campaign promises to balance the budget and slash government spending. The recent period of economic growth has been tempered by the deepest recession since the Great Depression, the panic on Wall Street, the rise of the "twin towers" (the budget and trade deficits) and a trillion dollar jump in the national debt.
Even the 1986 tax reform act, which Jack Kemp fans call the culmination of Reagan's campaign to "get government off our backs," was an about-face from Reagan's initial tax agenda. His 1981 tax bill expanded loopholes and shelters for corporations and the rich at the expense of the poor and boosted the budget deficit. He still opposed the latest tax reforms until it became politically impossible to do so.
As for ethics in government, Dukakis would be wise to follow Carter's lead. Carter's one ethical liability, Bert Lance, was never convicted of any crime. This administration certainly outdid his record with its influence-peddling officials, ideologues-gone-astray, and just plain crooks--from Michael Deaver, Lyn Nofziger, and Edwin Meese to Oliver North, John Poindexter, and William Casey to Anne Gorsuch, Rita Lavelle, and Raymond Donovan. Carter got Lance to resign, even after he was found innocent, while Reagan ignored rampant corruption.
Despite his faults, Carter was clearly in charge and on top of all policy decisions. He came forth when he erred, rather than trying to shift the blame to Congress or to his subordinates. No one can say the same of Reagan. If Dukakis wants to be known as a president possessing hands-on, competent management skills, instead of one proclaiming empty miracles, Carter is America's most recent example.
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