Political Animal


May 30, 2012 4:25 PM Once More With Feeling: It’s Not 1980

By Ed Kilgore

As noted here on several occasions, Republicans just love comparing this presidential election to that of 1980. The reasons are both obvious (they soundly defeated an incumbent Democratic president despite significant early doubts about their candidate’s ideology and general fitness for the office) and somewhat less obvious (Reagan was the first “movement conservative” candidate to be elected president; Carter’s 1976 victory was in retrospect “revealed” as a temporary, “accidental” interruption of a long period of Republican domination of the White House).

But as Nate Silver demonstrates today at FiveThirtyEight, efforts to compare the “failed presidency of Jimmy Carter” to the Obama administration, particularly when it comes to economic performance, are either ignorant or mendacious. Those of us who remember what life was actually like in 1980, or for that matter, who remember the dreaded word “stagflation,” can confirm that anecdotally, but Nate’s run the numbers:

Based on the data as reported in the six months leading up to May 29, 1980, inflation was increasing at a frantic annualized rate of almost 16 percent. At the same time, industrial production, consumption and personal income were declining at annualized rates of about 5 percent, adjusting for inflation.
The jobs data was less bad than the other variables in 1980, but still not good. As the figures were reported at the time, jobs had increased slightly in the six months leading up to May 1980, but not enough to keep up with population growth.
The forward-looking data was bad as well. The stock market declined in the six months leading up to May 1980 (even without adjusting for inflation), and the consensus of economic forecasters at the time was that conditions would remain recessionary for the six months ahead.
By contrast, the data this year is mediocre, but nowhere near that terrible. Industrial production has picked up quite a bit and is an economic bright spot, which could help Mr. Obama in the manufacturing-intensive economies of the Midwest. Inflation has not been a major problem throughout the economy as a whole, although energy prices have been a periodic threat.

Carter was also enduring an attention-grabbing and humiliating foreign policy crisis (the Iranian hostage nightmare), and unlike Obama today, was presiding over a violently divided Democratic Party that was being rapidly undercut by long-term political trends (the realignment of conservative Democrats in the South and, to a lesser extent, among ethnic Catholics).

As Nate says, it’s remarkable that Carter’s landslide loss wasn’t worse. And it’s even more remarkable that the contest was competitive until shortly before election day, particularly since third-party candidate John Anderson (who veered significantly to the left in the late going) was clearly taking more votes away from Carter than from Reagan in the autumn.

On top of everything else, the poll standings of the candidates in 1980 were exceptionally turbulent. This year a three- or four-point shift in Romney’s or Obama’s numbers sets off chattering class hysteria.

So while every prior election may have some value as a data point, 1980 was just that: a data point among many others, not a prophecy.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Mitch on May 30, 2012 4:45 PM:

    "Ignorant" and "mendacious" pretty much sums up modern conservatism.

    All they have is their narrative, expect them to stick to it like gum on a shoe.

  • Hedda Peraz on May 30, 2012 4:49 PM:

    Searching the past to explain the present leads to PhD dissertations, and not much else.

  • Peter C on May 30, 2012 4:52 PM:

    There are similarities, though. In 1980, Republicans were actively sabotaging Carter's efforts at resolving the hostage crisis. Now, they are actively sabotaging the economy despite Obama's best efforts. They have no problem doing harm in order to gain power.

  • jjm on May 30, 2012 4:53 PM:


    Stagflation was what we had under Gerald Ford, continuing Nixon's policies. Inflation was what we had under Carter. Obama's got neither.

  • MuddyLee on May 30, 2012 5:08 PM:

    Democrats should never forget that the Iran hostages were "magically" released on Reagan's inauguration day (Bush1 had been the former CIA director - coincidence only?) and Reagan took the solar panels off the White House because rightwingers thought Carter's ideas on energy conservation and alternative energy were somehow un-American. The country could have recovered from Nixon's presidency. It remains to be seen whether America can recover the diastrous influence of Reaganism.

  • Tom Q on May 30, 2012 5:44 PM:

    I'll say it every time someone tries to make this analogy: the Reagan election this year resembles is not 1980, it's 1984. A charismatic incumbent who's shifted the direction of the country has suffered through a brutal early-in-term recession that brought unemployment over 10% and caused his party severe losses in the midterms. But the economy comes back during the election year (in '84 unemployment got down to about 7.5%, not all that much better than what we see today), and the out-party nominates a candidate about whom the party is unenthusiastic.

    Because polls right now don't indicate a blowout, people tend to think of this election as alot more tenuous than I believe it is. By Fall, I expect Obama to be cruising toward re-election.

  • meady on May 30, 2012 5:51 PM:

    I hope you are right , but Reagan wasn't a black man and the majority of the electorate wasn't afraid of losing privilege to diversity.

  • Doug on May 30, 2012 6:37 PM:

    "...and a majority of the REPUBLICAN BASE wasn't afraid of losing privilege to diversity."
    There, fixed it for you meady.

  • C. P. Zilliacus on May 30, 2012 10:27 PM:

    The Republic Party is going to keep bringing-up Reagan's win in 1980 forever - or until the party goes the way of the Whigs.

    But don't forget that plenty of those same Republicans were claiming that 1996 was going to be just like 1980, and they were busy comparing President Clinton to President Carter.

  • Wally on May 31, 2012 10:28 AM:

    It always burns me to read of the failed hostage rescue being blamed on Carter. If it had succeeded, the military would have showered glory on itself. Since it failed, it's all the president's fault.