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Why Not the Best? Could Jimmy Carter Get Elected in 2008?

No one is suggesting that Jimmy Carter should run for president in 2008. He’ll be 84 then — way too old to run or serve.

But in a curious way, Carter may exemplify the kind of candidate Democrats need if they are to take back the White House three years from now.

A Southerner with a proven ability to win Southern states? Check.

A religious man who walks the walk as well as he talks the talk? Check. (He’s still teaching Sunday school in Plains, Ga.)

A military veteran who has offered a thoughtful critique of the war in Iraq and its aftermath? Check.

Of course, Carter won’t be running in

2008, and there doesn’t appear to be any Democrat out there like him who is running for president, though some people look admiringly at Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer as the closest facsimile.

Carter’s presidency may generally be considered a bust, but his political prowess was unimpeachable. And in retrospect, he may have been a politician who was ahead of his time.

Carter’s election in 1976 was seen as a response to — and a tonic for — the venality of the Nixon era. His was, in many ways, an improbable presidency.

He had no close ties to the Democratic Party’s stalwart activists, though he knew how to communicate with black voters and they generally liked him. He shrewdly understood and manipulated the Democratic primary process, which was then a four-month-long — and refreshingly small-d democratic — coast-to-coast slog, not the all-but-rigged sprint it is today.

Still, there’s a pretty good chance that if Gerald Ford hadn’t pardoned Richard Nixon, Ford — who came across as a nice-guy neighbor — would have won. The election was that close, and voters’ disgust with the pardon, and its symbol as the epitome of politics as usual, was that acute.

There is no point reviewing the failures of Carter’s presidency; most were self-inflicted. But you could argue that, without runaway inflation, without his rival, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), without the Ayatollah Khomeini and a Democratic Congress that wasn’t used to taking orders, Carter could have been more successful.

And his piety — a selling point when he was running for president in the aftermath of Watergate, but a drag when it came to governing and communicating with the American people — seemed very much out of step with his times. It was the slammin’ ’70s, and even some of his top aides were believed to be snorting coke back then.

Democrats and liberals have been fretting about the might of the Christian right for the past quarter century — coincidentally, around the time that Carter’s presidency went down in flames. But in fact it was Carter who was the first national politician in the post-Vietnam era to speak regularly and openly about his religious beliefs. Now desperate Democrats are looking for a way to talk about faith — even though Carter showed them the way three decades ago.

On foreign policy, Carter’s presidency is appropriately defined by the taking of American hostages in Iraq for 444 days and his seemingly paralyzed response. But while Ronald Reagan and the elder George Bush get all the credit for the fall of Communism, it was Carter who, after initially picking up Nixon and Ford’s policy of détente, first got tough with the Soviets after their invasion of Afghanistan. He pulled U.S. athletes out of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, reinstated draft registration and began a military buildup.

On matters of national security, Republicans have successfully kept Democrats on the defensive for the better part of 40 years. But Carter, a Naval Academy graduate who logged time on a nuclear submarine, is the kind of Democrat who can (or at least ought to be able to) criticize the war in Iraq without his patriotism questioned at every turn.

No, nobody is suggesting that Jimmy Carter should run for president in 2008.

But after searching for the “next” JFK for several generations, after admiring Bill Clinton’s unique jujitsu, maybe it’s Carter that the Democrats, perpetually reeling and on the defensive, ought to be turning to now.