GOP pins Jimmy Carter on Obama

By Glenn ThrushFor

When the going gets tough, Republicans get Jimmy Carter.

Republicans and their surrogates spent much of Thursday pinning the Carter kick-me sign on Barack Obama, portraying the current commander-in-chief as a Carter-esque wimp unwilling to challenge Islamist militants raging outside U.S. consular buildings in Libya, Yemen and Cairo.

Crazy-gluing the 44th president to the 39th has been a favorite Republican pastime for years. Carter is the brand name for fecklessness, indecision and weakness in the Oval Office. But up until now Mitt Romney, running mate Paul Ryan and their surrogates have invoked Carter to blast Obama's economic policies or willingness to cut defense spending not to define their opponent in a time of international crisis.

But the jarring images of angry mobs evoke memories of the Iranian hostage crisis, lending the Carter attacks new resonance and giving the GOP an opening to change a narrative that has mostly centered on Romney's sputtering response to the crisis.

"These attacks are sadly reminiscent of the 1979 attack on our embassy in Tehran under Carter's watch," wrote Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) in The Hill, a day after a mob in Benghazi murdered U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens.

"In June 2009, just months after Obama traveled the globe in what some have dubbed an Apology Tour, Obama traveled to Cairo [which is] now a vastly different city. The once promising Arab Spring has been hijacked by extremists who seek to advance their radical agenda and stand in the way of democracy in the region," Inhofe wrote.

Fire-breathing tea party favorite Rep. Allen West told The Huffington Post: "President Obama has clearly surpassed former President Jimmy Carter and his actions during the Iranian Embassy crisis, as the weakest and most ineffective person to ever occupy the White House."

That's an attack line likely to appeal to the GOP base, especially older voters who were around to remember the bad, old days of 1979. But it's also misleading, according to experts on the 30-year-old events. The Iran hostage crisis came at the height of the Cold War the big American footprint in Tehran was an offshoot of U.S.-Soviet power politics and Carter's decision to approve the ill-fated rescue mission was plenty bold and decisive, just unlucky and poorly executed.

"Carter seems to be a favorite whipping boy of the Republicans, but the popular perception of the crisis isn't quite what really happened, of course," said Gary Sick, a former State Department official who has written two histories of the hostage crisis, including "October Surprise."

"People think [Ronald] Reagan solved it he didn't," added Sick. "Actually, he was in office when the CIA chief in Lebanon was captured and tortured to death, and we had the American embassy blown up."

The difference between Reagan and Romney, Sick said, was that "Reagan had the courage to say this is not a time for politics, it's the time for national unity when those helicopters crashed in the desert. That at least showed a certain degree of class."

Another major difference between the two Democrats? Luck.

"Obama is much luckier than Carter, and luck is the most important thing a president can possibly have," said longtime New Yorker political correspondent and former Carter speechwriter Hendrik Hertzberg.

"They both ordered extremely high-risk commando missions, and Carter's was actually much higher-risk [than Obama's decision to kill Osama bin laden] and would have been a much higher payoff. If the rescue mission had succeeded, he would have undoubtedly been reelected instead of becoming a synonym for failure and weakness."

Hours after radicals stormed the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Romney's campaign sharply criticized a statement and tweets by diplomatic staff inside the building. The statement, not approved by the administration, denounced an anti-Islamic film produced in this country that incited the protests. That was "apologizing" to the mob, the campaign claimed. A few hours later Stevens had been murdered and Romney was drawing criticism from all sides for rushing to attack before all the facts were in.

The next day, he stuck with his attack, making the argument that it represented a dangerous tendency toward appeasement on the part of the Obama White House while acknowledging that the president's staff hadn't signed off on the statement.

Even before Romney spoke, his supporters were drawing comparisons between Obama's handling of the crisis and Carter's.

That storyline was given new life in Thursday when a writer for the conservative discovered similarities between Obama's slam on Romney and a similar statement Carter delivered on Ronald Reagan. "Gov. Romney seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later," Obama said in a CBS interview Wednesday night.

In 1980, Carter told the Democratic National Convention that Reagan lived in "a make believe world where some politicians shoot first and ask questions later."

Even if Republicans succeed in tying Obama to Carter, that doesn't mean voters will believe Romney, who has made foreign policy a secondary priority to the economy, is the new Reagan.

"Barack Obama looks a little more like Jimmy Carter today, but the problem is that Mitt Romney doesn't look more like Reagan," tweeted Matt Lewis of the Daily Caller.

That hasn't stopped Ryan and Romney from hammering the theme.

"You see, the president has no record to run on. In fact, every president since the Great Depression who asked Americans to send them into a second term could say that you are better off today than you were four years ago, except for Jimmy Carter and for President Barack Obama," Ryan said days after being named Romney's vice presidential pick in August.

In May, POLITICO reported that Romney was using Carter comparisons more and more, most often in connection with economic policy.

"It was the most anti-small business administration I've seen probably since Carter," Romney said in the spring. "Who would've guessed we'd look back at the Carter years as the good ol' days, you know? And you just go through the president's agenda over the last several years and ask yourself, did this help small business or did it hurt small business?"

The irony is that Carter, known for Mideast peacemaking and a combative personality, harbors no particular ill will toward his tormentor.

In an April sit-down with MSNBC, the former president said he believed Obama would win reelection, but he also said he'd be "comfortable" if Romney won based on the former Massachusetts governor's historically "moderate" and "fairly competent" record in the state house and during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.

Glenn Thrush is a reporter for{} POLITICO and ABC News 4 have partnered for the 2012 presidential campaign cycle.