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Obama is not Carter; Romney is not Reagan

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Wed September 5, 2012
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign rally Saturday in Cincinnati.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign rally Saturday in Cincinnati.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Paul Ryan has "insulted" Obama by comparing his presidency to Carter's
  • He has better question: Is GOP in anything like the position it held in 1980 with Reagan?
  • He says despite Gov. Chris Christie and others, GOP lacks "farm team" to take over D.C.
  • Zelizer: With spending, wars, bad economic policies, GOP has its own problems with record

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of the new book "Governing America."

(CNN) -- This week, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan leveled the ultimate insult at President Barack Obama. He said: "The Jimmy Carter years look like the good old days compared to where we are right now."

In the modern political era, comparing any Democratic (or Republican) president to Jimmy Carter is just about as nasty as a politician can get. The characterization of Carter might not be fair -- as many historians have started to look again at the accomplishments of his term, such as his initiatives on energy and his role in the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt -- but the poor state of the economy on his watch and trouble in Iran and Afghanistan left the Georgian as a symbol of incompetence and failed presidential leadership.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

A different way to think about Ryan's statement is to ask a question, one that is equally relevant to Ryan and his future: What is the condition of the Republican Party compared with where it stood in 1980?

On this front, the comparison might not be so kind to the GOP. After all, when Carter's presidency ended, the Republicans had a number of up-and-coming political stars who would soon remake the political landscape, ranging from Newt Gingrich to Ronald Reagan, both in their prime.

Today, even with the promise of candidates such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Rep. Ryan, it is unclear whether Republicans have the same kind of farm team ready to take over Washington.

Ryan: Carter years the 'good ol' days'
Fact or fiction? Paul Ryan's RNC speech
Romney and Ryan: 'A generation apart'

Reagan expressed conservative ideas in a way that was appealing to a broad spectrum of the country and made the ideas of the right seem like a bridge to the future. Reagan displayed the kind of electoral savvy that was needed to hold together a diverse coalition even when there were significant differences over policy among Republicans. He could deflect attacks from his opponents with a turn of the phrase or even a quick smile.

Certainly, presidential candidate Mitt Romney has revealed the limits of his talent on the campaign trail and his difficulty articulating the same kind of compelling ideological agenda as his predecessors in 1980.

Another way in which Republicans are not doing as well is, ironically, a result of their success. After holding significant power in the White House or Congress for over three decades, Republicans can no longer claim the same kind of outsider status as they did when Reagan won office.

Since 1980, they are a party with a sizable record of their own -- a record that includes high levels of government spending, pork barrel politics, flawed military operations, corruption and unsuccessful economic policies. When Republicans talk about the problems with Washington, they must talk about the problems with themselves, not just Democrats. They even have a controversial president of their own, George W. Bush, who has come to symbolize failures of conservative leadership.

Finally, according to numerous analysts, demographics are no longer working in favor of Republicans. While in 1980 Republicans were riding the wave of a booming Sunbelt, Democrats can now look forward to the expanding minority vote, namely Hispanics, and the movement of highly educated voters into blue states.

So Ryan might be right that voters can feel a little of 1980 in 2012, given that the economic stagnation of today is reminiscent of the malaise in the late 1970s. But the GOP needs to be careful because their party is not in quite the same shape as it once was. and as a result, it might have a harder time repeating Reagan's success.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

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