The Jimmy Carter path to Brexit?

You may think you've heard it all on the subject of Brexit. But wait, have you considered the Jimmy Carter effect?

Against the odds: Jimmy Carter
Patrick Sullivan, Political Editor
On 18 January 2019 15:51

The behaviour of our elected politicians has led the British public to finally lose faith with the political class. This happened in the US following the failure of their own political class in the wake of the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Lessons can be learned from what followed in the presidential election of 1976 which, interestingly, may provide a roadmap for Leave to win a second referendum against what, at the moment, are unfavourable odds.

Successful political candidates in America have won by campaigning against Washington for the past four decades, but this started with the most transformational presidential campaign of modern times, that of James Earl Carter.

Until the election of Donald J Trump to the presidency in 2016, it was Jimmy Carter who was the most unlikely person to ascend to the presidency.

Carter was considered such a longshot candidate that, in the day following his campaign announcement, even his hometown paper thought he didn’t have a hope in hell and ran the headline “Jimmy Who is running for governor”. At that point, outside of Georgia no one even knew who Jimmy Carter was.

Political convention was that unless you were a war hero like Eisenhower, only those with stellar Washington credentials and insider status could become president. The Democratic field in the 1976 primary was one of the largest recorded with fifteen candidates, including significant senators.

There is a saying in American politics that the US senate consists of a hundred people who wake up and see a potential president in the mirror every morning. In 1976, a fair proportion of those on the democratic bench in the US senate decided to put their hat in the ring for the presidency, seeing ’76 as a democratic year due to the pardon of Richard Nixon.

That a one term governor of Georgia who famously was also a peanut farmer could become the president seemed ridiculous to the Washington pundit class. But Jimmy Carter knew something that they didn’t; he knew that Washington had lost faith with the American populous and that somebody from within Washington would not have the credibility to fix Washington. He also knew how to work the difference.

When doing the initial preparations for his ultimately successful run, Carter asked his youthful campaign manager Hamilton Jordan to handicap his chances and give a list of reasons as to why he would not win. Jordan came back saying that Carter faced almost insurmountable odds and could not win because he was a southerner, a Christian, a governor, and had no Washington experience. Carter then responded with a list of reasons as to why he would win: he was a southerner, a Christian, a governor and had no Washington experience.

Knowing his disadvantages, Carter decided to own them and turn them into virtues with which he would contrast himself to all the other candidates in the race.

Apart from the election of Lyndon Johnson who had first assumed the presidency due to an assassin’s bullet, no southerner had been elected to the presidency since the civil war. With the election of Jimmy Carter up to the election of Barack Obama, subsequent US presidents came from either the west coast or the south.

Although liberals currently make great political hay out of attacking the bible belt and religious voters, it was Carter who injected it into the American body of politics. Previous to that, to borrow a phrase from Alistair Campbell, US politicians did not “do God”. Carter himself an evangelical Christian decided to make a virtue of his faith.

Following on from the lies told by president Johnson to get America into the Vietnam war and the dirty tricks campaign favoured by president Nixon’s re-election campaign, Washington politicians were considered inherently dishonest.

Carter, not being from Washington, and being a religious man, campaigned on the unique pledge to the primary voters of New Hampshire that “I will never lie to you”. Implicit in that pledge was that the candidates within the Washington beltway were no more than crooked politicians who had practised politics as usual. This positive pledge managed to effectively smear his opponent without having said a negative word about them.

Running as a man of faith had the additional benefit of giving the poorly resourced Carter campaign an inbuilt infrastructure in the support of evangelical pastors and their churches throughout middle America. So effective was Carter’s embrace of religion, that 24 years later when asked during a Republican presidential primary debate who his favourite philosopher was, Texas's George W Bush replied “Jesus”.

Following the election of Jimmy Carter, until, once again the election of Barack Obama (who is an exceptional case), no one had been able to make the transition from the US Senate to the White House. Carter paved the way for it to become received wisdom that the best route to the White House ran through the state house. Carter ran on the fact that he had executive experience of actually running a government in contrast to being a member of the glorified debating society of Capitol Hill.

In the aftermath of this week’s events in Parliament, the British public are just dismissing the House of Commons as an out of touch talking shop that cannot get anything done. The parallels between this sentiment and that of the American people towards Congress is uncanny. Carter knew that he could not ignore his weaknesses. He had to address them head on and flip them on their heads.

Here in the UK in 2019, the People’s Vote are organisationally superior and resource rich. The only effective way a counter campaign could conceivably succeed would be to use the sheer size of the Remain monolith against them.

The People’s Vote campaign has the establishment advantage within Westminster. There is no way round this, so a future Leave campaigner should not try and compete on that playing field. Instead, it must be a campaign led not by Westminster insiders, but genuine political outsiders. Let us be quite clear, no one involved in party politics can escape responsibility for the legislative mess in which we find ourselves.

One candidate to lead any future campaign is staring us right in the face. One of the few people the public consider to have the credibility to speak up for Brexit is the self-made businessman, entrepreneur and Wetherspoons chairman Tim Martin.

And do not forget Nigel Farage.

The effective collapse of UKIP has allowed the already larger than life Mr Farage to transcend party politics at the perfect time. Only he can prevent the narrative gaining hold in Labour’s northern heartland that what we have is a Tory Brexit.

Mr Farage has no dog in the party political fight now.

There may also be others, but, if they are going to win through, it would surely be better if they did not come out of the establishmet fold.

By emulating Jimmy Carter, and working the difference, we can find that narrow path to reaffirming the Brexit vote of 2016.

Patrick Sullivan is the Political Editor of The Commentator @PatJSullivan

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