Former President Jimmy Carter has some advice for fellow Democrats looking to end Republican control of American government: Don’t go too far to the left.
“Independents need to know they can invest their vote in the Democratic Party,” Carter said Tuesday, during his annual report at his post-presidential center and library in Atlanta.
Carter stressed that Democrats nationally must “appeal to independents,” who are souring on the current administration.
President Trump’s job approval rating, according to Gallup, has dipped to 40 percent, mostly because of declining support among independents.
Carter alluded to arguments from self-identified progressives that Democrats will sacrifice votes on the left if they don’t embrace the liberal base: “I don’t think any Democrat is going to vote against a Democratic nominee,” Carter said.
He also insisted that he’s not asking the left to sacrifice its goals, only to see that winning elections is necessary to accomplish any of them.
There is some historical irony to Carter’s analysis.
He came to the White House in 1976 from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, and he clashed with party liberals, drawing a spirited primary challenge in 1980 from Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy. Carter prevailed, but he was wounded, abandoned by Kennedy’s most liberal supporters and unable to win over independents who helped deliver a landslide for Republican Ronald Reagan and end Carter's hopes for a second term.
Carter and his wife live a modest life in Plains, Georgia, where the former president was born and raised. Following his presidency, he wrote books about his faith and career before starting the Carter Center.
Carter also “costs U.S. taxpayers less than any other ex-president” in terms of allowances and office staff, the General Services Administration reported.
As an elder statesman, he does like to dip back into the political scene, now and again.
These days, he said, he sees little hope for the U.S. to change its human rights and environmental policies as long as Trump is in the White House.
However, he offered a caution about the political consequences of a Democratic shift “to a very liberal program, like universal health care.”
That’s delicate — and, Carter admitted, even contradictory — advice coming from the 93-year-old former president, and it underscores the complicated political calculations for Democrats as they prepare for the midterms and look ahead to 2020.
“Rosie and I voted for Bernie Sanders in the past,” Carter noted.
He was referring to his wife, Rosalynn, and their support for the Vermont senator, an independent who identifies as a democratic socialist, over establishment favorite Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
Carter’s latest handicapping comes near the conclusion of a midterm primary season that has seen Democratic voters nudge the party to the left.
In some states and districts, that means nominating full-throated advocates of single-payer health care, a $15 minimum wage and the abolition or overhaul of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In other races, it means nominees who back more cautious moves to the left, such as background checks before certain gun purchases, a “public option” health insurance plan to compete alongside private insurance policies, step raises for the minimum wage and an immigration overhaul that offers legal status to some immigrants in the country illegally.
Carter did not delve into those distinctions, instead offering a sweeping condemnation of his latest successor to remind Democrats of the stakes.
He denounced the administration’s latest environmental policy proposal to make it easier for energy companies to release methane gas that contributes to climate change. At another point, he pointed to California’s environmental policies — limits on carbon emissions, stiffer fuel-efficiency standards — as the model for combating climate change.
He singled out Trump’s policy of separating immigrant families at the border, including those seeking asylum.
“America is inherently committed to human rights, and I think in the future we will let that prevail,” Carter said, “but for the next two years, I can’t predict the imprisoned children are going to be any better off — unfortunately.”
Carter has previously criticized Trump for his repeated falsehoods, and he has chided the incumbent for his hard-line support for Israel over Palestinians.
Yet Carter has found common ground with Trump on other foreign policy fronts, and did so again Tuesday.
While avoiding any mention of the special counsel’s investigation into whether Trump’s presidential campaign coordinated with Russia in the 2016 elections, Carter said he has engaged for years with Russian President Vladimir Putin concerning the ongoing Syrian civil war.
“I have his email address,” said Carter, adding that he and Putin share the same Russian river as their favorite spot for salmon fishing.
That friendship, Carter said, means when Russia and other nations hold multilateral talks about the Syrian conflict, “quite often they invite the Carter Center. ... They do not invite the U.S. government.”
Carter also praised Trump for meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Carter repeated his frustrations with the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, for not engaging more directly with the insular Asian nation. Carter said he’s not sure Trump has made real progress yet with North Korea, but he endorsed calls for the U.S. to declare formally an end to the Korean War and normalize relations with Pyongyang.
“Let them be part of the community of nations,” he said. “I think that would be enough in itself to bring an end to the nuclear program in North Korea.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.