Voters penalized Democrats for missed opportunities
The message for the Democratic Party was crystal clear: change or else. Jimmy Carterhs decisive loss -- felling with it liberal Democratic stalwarts in Congress -- was both a personal and party defeat.
And some observers see in it a serious Democratic ideological lapse -- a failure of the President and his party to secure a center footing among the party's classic New Deal liberals, the newer "elitist" antiwar liberals, and impatient conservatives.
The Democrats' losses were so sweeping that no single excuse -- John Anderson's independent candidacy, the lingering hostage issue, or Ronald Reagan's debate victory -- explains what happened. Mr. Carter trailed by 10 percent in the popular vote, and by 10 to 1 in the electoral vote.
At base, the American people apparently sought more hope, more forward momentum with Reagan and the Republicans to "more of the same" perceived stagnation and frustra" tion under Carter.
Critiques of the Democratic loss and prescriptions for change deal harshly with Carter's style and performance.
"I'm a supporter of President Carter and a Democrat," says Thomas Cronin, a presidential scholar at the University of Colorado. "But Carter tremendously misused his opportunity to talk about a vision of the next four years. If the presidency is anything, it has to be a more-building institution."
Carter also failed to build coalitions among his party's and the nationhs power groups.
"He failed to unit the Democratic Party or the nation behind the kind of policies he ran on in 1976," says Jeane Kirkpatrick, George Washington University political scientist and life-long Democrat. "He said he stood in the mainstream of the Democratic Party, for growth of the labor movement, and a strong defense posture."
But Carter's ambiguous ideological makeup -- appealing equally to conservaties, liberals, and moderates -- and his isolated leadership style "unnecessarily alienated many people who would have helped him in the mainstream ," Mrs. Kirkpatrick says.
"He tried to solve problems personally," she observes. "It was a kind of 'Lone Ranger' presidency. He bragged in his first years he was beholden to no one. His great pride was no commitments, no bartering for any support. It represented an antipolitical view of the world, despite huge mobilization of groups for him."
Carter had no interest in rebuilding the Democratic Party at all, Mrs. Kirkpatrick and other Democrats say. She complains that working-class Democrats -- once the core of New Deal politics -- have been squeezed out by "a romantic alliance between a new Democratic elite and an underclass."
"This new orthodoxy is doomed to electoral failure, she says. "This is only the first of a series of defeats."
The Carter style generated a backlash, adds Stephen Wayne, George Washington University's White House expert: "He bears the prime responsibility for his loss. Carter sounded so pure when he first ran for office, then acted so political. He was a loner. He avoided the party machinery until the end. He did not try to build coalitions. The campaign was a good enough campaign. But he got out of check and went for the jugular. These personality traits contributed mightily to his difficulties in office, to his re-election campaign, and to the anger of the American people on election day."