Who the heck is Jimmy Carter?

If Republicans have their way, he will be the ghost in the Obama White House, a frightful figure they will try to tie to the new Democratic president by conjuring up disturbing memories — a failure of energy policy, a failure of foreign policy and, of course, a recitation of the very phrase that helped to bring the Carter presidency to its failed end, malaise. Not since Carter, Republicans ominously warn, have the Democrats controlled so much of Washington so thoroughly — a sure sign, conservatives screech, of a coming lurch to the left that will leave the United States slouching dangerously toward socialism.

That is their image. This is my own: a toddler born during the Carter era, padding around in his diaper, plunking his bottom down on the rug to watch “Sesame Street.”

The core of Barack Obama’s support from the moment he began his improbable quest for the presidency was African-Americans inspired by the prospect of the first black president — and those Carter-era toddlers.

They are now voters between 18 and 30. The oldest among them were babies when Carter was president; many had yet to be born. They have no personal recollection of the supposed havoc he caused. What they know of Carter are his post-presidential endeavors, which are utterly in sync with the values they’ve often embraced as their own generation’s cause: humanitarianism, environmentalism, the quest to eradicate disease in remote corners of the world, an overarching interest in achieving peace through justice.

The defining contest of the past generation in politics has been the Democrats’ fight to reverse the conservative Reagan Revolution, which began in 1980. But these young people experienced economic good times that came not under Republicans, but under Democrat Bill Clinton, who presided over a technology boom and a rise in the stock market. He was first to understand the challenge and promise of the global economy and boosted his party’s credibility by balancing the federal budget.

In the lifetimes of voters who are under 30, here is how economic memories play out: When the good times rolled, a Democratic president was in office; when the bad times hit, Republican George W. Bush was at the helm.

In the meantime, the Democratic Party was transforming itself. It ceased to be the caricature of Republican sound bites. Clinton shattered the mold with his centrist appeal and was elected twice by breaking what had been a Republican political chokehold in the nation’s suburbs; Obama built on that foundation and expanded it into exurbs that been the Republicans’ province in the Bush era.

Obama’s victory was broad and deep — he is the first Democrat since Carter to win a majority of the popular vote. But that, and the fact that Obama defeated a thoroughly discredited Republican Party — as did Carter after Watergate — is where the similarity ends.

To talk of 2008 as a realigning election is premature. That will be determined much more by how Obama and the strengthened Democratic majority in Congress govern than by how they’ve won election. It is already clear, though, that a movement toward Democrats has been building over the last few elections.

Obama trounced Republican John McCain among voters 18 to 29 by a margin of 66-to-32, according to network exit polls — a lopsided result the Democrat famously had nurtured along. This age group already had begun to go strongly Democratic — in 2006, it gave congressional Democrats 61 percent of its vote, helping to propel the party to control of the House and Senate. Speaker Nancy Pelosi formed a “30-Something Working Group” within the House Democratic Caucus, both to meet the younger members’ political needs and to use them as ambassadors to younger voters.

This Democratic youth movement, the changing racial demographics of the country and the emergence of “new economy” voters who are untethered to old ideologies were the roots of victory for Obama — and, for the past two elections, for congressional Democrats that Republicans so want us to fear. “The country must be governed from the middle,” Pelosi said at her postelection news conference. Right-leaning Republicans, she indicated, “have left a lot of field open as to how you define middle.”

No one can now know how successful the next president will be. But it seems unlikely Obama will be another President Carter because the Democratic Party buried that ghost deeply, and did so long ago.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group


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