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How the 1980 presidential election still influences Georgia politics today 

Carter's loss - and Reagan's win - continues to ripple throughout the state today

FAMILY TIES: Already Republicans are using former President Jimmy Carter's legacy to bash gubernatorial candidate — and his grandson — Jason Carter

Joeff Davis

FAMILY TIES: Already Republicans are using former President Jimmy Carter's legacy to bash gubernatorial candidate — and his grandson — Jason Carter

For the past five years, Republicans throughout the country have vainly attempted to paint President Barack Obama as another Jimmy Carter. With every hiccup in a struggling economy and every flicker of turmoil in the Middle East, the right wing amplified the thinnest echoes of similarity to the country's 39th president into thunderous pronouncements of common incompetence.

Following the recent news that Jason Carter, a Decatur state senator and the former president's grandson, would run in Georgia's 2014 gubernatorial race, state Republicans have turned ecstatic about the prospect of a candidate who not only carries the legacy of the Democratic Party, but also the name of the last Democratic incumbent president to lose an election.

Firing salvos at the Carter legacy is, and will continue to be, part of the Republican central nervous system. As his grandson tries to unseat Gov. Nathan Deal, we'll hear growing comparisons from conservative doomsayers.

Jason Carter knows the odds he faces as a Democrat candidate in a Republican stronghold. While the gubernatorial challenger has a fighting chance due to his family's legacy, it'll also be his greatest challenge in 2014. To win, Jason Carter will need to resurrect the hope of his grandfather's 1976 campaign and fight the demons from his crushing defeat four years later.

Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory was a defining moment for my generation. Many children born in the prior decade were introduced to American politics through the prism of the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal.

In 1976, hope flickered when a genial southwest Georgia farmer inconceivably won the keys to the Oval Office. For many, it was false hope. By the end of Carter's first term, the nation had crumbled under the morass of double-digit inflation, energy shortages, and a lingering Iranian hostage crisis. Already haunted by retreat from one foreign nation in Southeast Asia, the helpless sight of angry students in a foreign land, holding U.S. diplomats hostage for more than a year, closed the '70s with a grim parenthetical.

Carter struggled with a world where imperialism, both explicit and implicit, was crashing down on the previous century's greatest nations. Congress was openly hostile to his agenda, despite being controlled by his party, and Republicans were anxious to erase a disgraced Richard Nixon from their canon. When Carter addressed the ongoing energy crisis, the cardigan-wearing commander-in-chief chided Americans for not turning down their thermostats. The country craved confidence. It received a national scold.

Hope for many emerged in the form of a California actor who played the folksy regular guy role better than the Georgian farmer with actual humble origins. In 1980, Reagan offered to cast aside the darkness of his predecessor and would allow the light to once again shine on God's chosen nation. He set out to redeem the country's strength and reputation across the globe.

Reagan's followers have since clung to his mythical ideologies. To them, 1980 marked a time when true conservatism defeated the free-spending legacies of presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Despite Carter's legacy as a New Deal Democrat, they ignore the fact that the way he governed would make today's conservatives envious. Income taxes were never raised, the deficit was lowered, the airline industry was deregulated, and his own party hated his attempts at spending cuts.

After four years of malaise, Reagan helped turn around the U.S. economy. He deserves some credit for staving inflation and restoring confidence. But so does Carter. Reagan should get recognition for retaining Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, who was Carter's pick and executed his fiscal plans under conservative leadership.

But you must look to Iran for the lodestone of the 1980 myth. Few events crystallized Carter's tenure, and the preceding decade, like the 444-day long captivity of 52 American hostages. How could America prosper if it could be brought to its knees by ragtag students in a distant country?

A key element of Reagan's influence is the belief that by his mere election, the leaders of the Iranian Revolution, fearing old-fashioned Western retribution, immediately threw their hostages on planes back to the United States. The truth is they despised Carter. They knew nothing would humiliate their enemy worse than handing over the prize on his successor's watch.

But details and nuance are for historians — not political pugilists. To Republicans, 1980 was no less than a fault line between the worst and greatest American presidents. Forgotten are the 1982 and 1984 tax hikes, 1985 insurance mandates, and 1986 immigration reform.

In the minds of the modern Republicans, 1980 marked an ideological birth founded upon a binary equation that tax cuts plus reduction of services always equals growth. In 1982, Reagan boasted about a deal with Democrats resulting in 3-to-1 spending cuts to tax increases. Last year, Reagan devotees in Congress refused the idea of 10-to-1 cuts to increases.

The need to define today's era in the stark terms of an idealized memory of 1980 is crystallized by keepers of Reagan's legacy like RedState editor Erick Erickson. His hyperbolic references of President Carter as "history's greatest monster" still resonate in a largely Republican Georgia electorate. That could haunt his grandson.

Following Jason Carter's announcement, Gov. Nathan Deal sent out an email that said, "another Carter at the helm is not what Georgia needs." Rather than reference Georgia Republican's greatest victory — former Gov. Sonny Perdue's 2002 defeat of incumbent Roy Barnes — Deal reached back three decades to attack his grandfather.

Jason Carter so far has tactfully distanced himself from his grandfather. When asked by the press about the relationship, he cites inspiration from the elder statesman but quickly points out they don't always agree. He'll have to keep walking that fine line, only tapping lightly on his name recognition, to be competitive in 2014. Otherwise, Reagan's lore will keep Georgia red.

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