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Broad campaign themes sharpen in focus

2012 not 1980 redux – exactly


– For months now, the right and the left have argued about whether this year’s contest is a repeat of the 1980 race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It’s a comparison that benefits Republicans, who want to portray President Obama as helpless on the economy, feckless on foreign policy and politically vulnerable.

National Journal’s Sophie Quinton argued that Romney’s criticism of Obama in the wake of assaults on U.S. missions in Egypt and Libya was a marked departure from Reagan’s response to the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and ensuing hostage crisis. When Carter’s effort to rescue the American hostages failed in April 1980, Quinton points out, Reagan took the high ground. When Reagan debated Carter, she adds, he refrained from answering a question about how he would handle a similar crisis because of the sensitivity of the issue.

That’s some impressive restraint. But Reagan was far less diplomatic on many other occasions.

In fact, the debate between Carter and Reagan over the Iranian crisis was remarkably similar to the rhetoric we’re hearing now from the Obama and Romney campaigns. Let’s take a look at some examples:

U.S. weakness at fault

Reagan: In November 1979, just weeks after radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Reagan argued that Carter’s policies had diminished respect for the United States around the world. The Associated Press reported at the time that “Reagan repeatedly said he wouldn’t comment on the Iranian situation because remarks by presidential candidates might upset possible secret negotiations” to free American hostages. “But in each case,” the news outlet added, Reagan “followed his refusal with criticism” of Carter’s Iran policy.

Romney: Romney, it seems, is far less conflicted about speaking out, but he too has suggested that Obama’s failure to lead created the conditions under which attacks on U.S. missions could occur.

Embassy attack symptomatic of bigger issues

Reagan: In November 1979, Reagan claimed that the lack of respect underlying the embassy attack stemmed from the Carter administration’s destructive desire to be liked, whether by supporting the SALT II nuclear arms deal with the Soviet Union or transferring control of the Panama Canal to Panama.

Romney: Romney cited his differences with Obama on Afghanistan, Iran, Israel and Syria, and Romney surrogate Dan Senor made a more explicit connection between the events of the last couple of days and these larger issues on CNN. The violence, he contended, is a reminder of the “chaos that a lot of the policies of this administration has sowed. Chaos in the Arab Spring. Chaos where allies in Israel feel that they can’t rely on us. You saw the flare-up over the last couple of days with the prime minister of Israel and the president.”

Violation of American principles

Reagan: In the weeks after the attack in Tehran, Reagan lashed out at the Carter administration for violating an “American principle” by not granting Iran’s deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi permanent asylum.

Romney: Romney has also appealed to American values in denouncing the Obama administration, arguing that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, in publishing a statement and tweets condemning an anti-Islam American film before a crowd gathered at the compound, had issued an “apology for America’s values.”

‘Shoot first’ mentality

Carter: During his convention speech in August 1980, Carter noted that “while we Democrats grapple with the real challenges of a real world, others talk about a world of tinsel and make-believe,” adding that “it’s a make-believe world, a world of good guys and bad guys, where some politicians shoot first and ask questions later.”

Obama: In an interview with CBS, Obama criticized Romney for swiftly denouncing the administration’s foreign policy while news of the U.S. mission attacks was still developing. “Governor Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later,” he observed. “And as president, one of the things I’ve learned is you can’t do that.”

No time for politics

Carter: In October 1980, ahead of his only debate with Reagan, he chastised the Republican candidate for breaking a pledge to refrain from discussing the Iranian crisis. “The fate of the hostages is too important ... to be made a political football,” Carter explained. Reagan, for his part, claimed the hostage issue was fair game.

Obama: In an interview with Telemundo, Obama argued that the aftermath of the U.S. mission attacks was not a “time for politics.” As president, he added, “my obligation is to focus on security for our people ... and not having ideological arguments on a day when we’re mourning.”

There are differences between the two periods, of course.

Reagan did not publicly criticize Carter for several days after students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Iran, while Romney issued a statement hours after the attacks in Egypt and Libya.

But within weeks, Reagan was weighing in forcefully on the issue. And by December 1979, the Washington Post reported that Reagan was “finding it hard to restrain himself” on Iran and had “suggested for the first time that he might make the Iranian issue a major theme of his political campaign once the hostage question is decided.”

That day never came during the race. But that didn’t stop Reagan from seizing on an issue that ultimately helped propel him to victory.

Uri Friedman is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.