In Jimmy Carter’s White House, Patrick Caddell was, in the words of Teddy White, the “house Cassandra” — an all-too-candid pollster whose prophecies spooked the president’s other advisors. Three decades later, Caddell again is warning his fellow Democrats about electoral doom. As he sips an iced tea over lunch in midtown Manhattan, Caddell sighs and tells me that the lessons of the Carter years appear to be all but forgotten by the current crop of Democrats in Washington.
“President Obama’s undoing may be his disingenuousness,” Caddell says. After campaigning for post-partisanship, Obama, he observes, has lurched without pause to the left. “You can’t get this far from what you promised,” Caddell says, “especially when people invest in hope — you must understand that obligation. The killer in American politics is disappointment. When you are elected on expectations, and you fail to meet them, your decline steepens.”
In 1979, as Carter’s poll numbers slid south amidst a sagging economy, Caddell drafted a memo to the president urging him to recognize that the nation was “deep in crisis.” Gazing upon today’s electoral landscape, Caddell paints an even bleaker picture. “We may be at a pre-revolutionary moment,” he says, unsmiling. “Everything is in motion.” This November, he predicts, “will be more of a national referendum than any [midterm election] since Watergate.”
The polling data show how restless the country is. “A Rasmussen poll from earlier this year showed just 21 percent of voters believing that the federal government enjoys the consent of the governed — an astounding figure,” Caddell says. “Then a CNN poll showed that 56 percent of Americans worried that the federal government poses a direct threat to their freedom.”
“Democrats are aware of this,” Caddell continues. “They know that the general outcome is baked.” As the fall campaign kicks into gear, “the question now becomes whether Obama can mitigate their losses. You see them trying to localize their campaigns and pretending that they don’t know Nancy Pelosi. It’s all rather amusing.”
Unlike President Reagan at his first-term midpoint, in 1982, “Obama is not able to go out there and say, ‘Stay the course.’ That’s just not possible. The Democrats’ hope with health care was that ‘people will like it after we pass it.’ Well, they hate it, and you don’t see any effort to promote it. The Democrats had a chance to do this right — most people supported aspects of reform — but because of the way it was passed, as a crime against democracy, the country has simply not accepted it. The lies, the browbeating, the ‘deem and pass’ — all of it was a suicide mission.”
On Monday, Gallup released a new weekly poll showing Republicans leading Democrats by an unprecedented ten-point margin, 51 to 41 percent, in congressional voting preferences — the largest gap in Gallup’s history of tracking the midterm generic ballot. “I have never seen numbers like this,” Caddell says, shaking his head. “Unless Republicans can find some way to screw it up, they will win big, even though nobody really likes them, either.”
Indeed, rather than a ringing endorsement of either major party, Caddell sees November as a broader referendum on the political class — the class, he says, to which Obama, and his political fate, are irrevocably tied.
“Democrats used to be the voice of the common man in America, not his dictator,” Caddell laments. “Now, with Wall Street, their mantra is, ‘We’ll take your money, but we won’t kiss.’ The people who own the party — George Soros, the Center for American Progress, the public-employee union bosses, rich folks flying private jets to ‘ideas festivals’ in Aspen — they’re Obama’s base.”
Though Obama is bruised, Caddell is quick to note that he is far from finished — a point, he says, that Republicans prefer to whisper in the backroom. He points to Obama’s summer strategy — a serious-minded speech on Iraq, a trip to New Orleans to address the rebuilding efforts — as evidence that the president is “attempting to be presidential, which is the best thing he can do politically.” Carter, he observes, took a similar approach in 1978 — focusing on the Camp David Accords and beefing up his foreign-policy portfolio. As Caddell recalls, he advised the president that it was important not simply to govern, but tolead. By October 1978, the Georgian’s approval numbers had begun to tick up, and the Democrats lost only a handful of seats in the House and Senate.
“With Carter, I would argue that his failures were not of the heart or of intent, but, perhaps, of execution,” Caddell says. “He was never inconsistent with what he originally envisioned. I can’t say the same for Obama.” Successful presidents, Caddell argues, “realize that it is not about them — that the country is bigger than their presidency. With Obama, it is always about him. It’s a terrible thing to have to say, but I think that it has become obvious.”
Can Obama soften the blow at the eleventh hour? Caddell says it will be tough. Any efforts by Obama to right his ship, he says, will still face an electorate largely uninterested in new West Wing talking points or presidential maneuvers. Caddell believes that 2010 will be a louder, more raucous moment than 1978 in American politics. “The discontent is much larger than the turnout at Glenn Beck rallies,” he says. “A sea of anger is churning — the tea parties are but the tip of the iceberg. People say they want to take their country back, and, to the Democrats’ chagrin, they’re very serious about it.”
As we part, Caddell, once the dashing young star of Democratic presidential politics as an advisor to George McGovern, Carter, and Gary Hart, acknowledges that his criticisms may ruffle some feathers or simply be shrugged off by Democratic leaders. Still, he says, it is important to sound the alarm.
After all these years, Caddell laughs, “I know my role. I’m like Toto in the Wizard of Oz. My job is to pull back the curtain to reveal the little man with the microphone.”