"Surely the Lord sent Jimmy Carter," the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s father proclaimed at the 1976 Democratic convention, "to come on out and bring America back where she belongs."
Carter campaigned on his personal religiosity far more than any other president since World War II. In an interview with Pat Robertson on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Carter explained that "secular law is compatible with God's laws," but if the two were in conflict, "we should honor God's law." Robertson endorsed Carter. So did Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, who said, "God has his hand upon Jimmy Carter to run for president."
Though it is hard to fathom today, given that Carter is one of the dullest personalities in American public life (and ranks high on the all-time dull list for carbon-based life forms generally), there was a time when he was seen as a deeply charismatic figure. One of his aides privately urged him in a memo to "capitalize on your greatest asset -- your personal charm." Newsweek insisted that he "evokes memories of Kennedy's style." Jules Witcover, who chronicled the 1976 campaign in his book, "Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976," writes that Carter's magnetism was so powerful, he could conduct "personal political baptisms" with voters.
In an article partially headlined, "On Carter: 'Country is Ready' for the Hope He Stirs," U.S. News & World Report (which wasn't always a college ranking guide) interviewed Brandeis political scientist Thomas Cronin, who explained that "Carter's coalition is more of a personal matter." Voters are attracted to his "engaging personality and to his smile, his centrist tone." Some in the Democratic Party hoped that Carter's stunning success in the South and with the more socially conservative evangelical vote was a sign that the Democrats had truly reclaimed the center -- and the White House with it -- for generations.
It was not to be. The liberals left him in the primary for Ted Kennedy. The evangelicals and the Southerners left him in the fall for Ronald Reagan. If the Lord had sent Carter, it was to set the stage for the Reagan revolution.
The Carter presidency failed and his coalition dissipated because you can't hold a coalition together with personality alone. You need to actually govern in a way that satisfies your constituency.
"The New Deal coalition is called the 'New Deal coalition' and not the 'Great Depression coalition' for a reason," says political analyst Jay Cost. FDR offered a winning political program. Carter offered sanctimony, arrogance and the sense that he bit off more than he could handle.