Democrats’ 1968 flashback
DEMOCRATS’ 1968 FLASHBACK
Democrats led the way in breaking America’s political nominating process two generations ago. Can they lead the country back out of the mess today?
Much of our current political bellyache traces its beginnings to the undigested bits of the 1968 election. That was the one when Democrats went completely crackers over the Vietnam War and managed to follow the party’s 1964 landslide victory – it’s biggest since FDR’s first re-election – with a 37-state wipeout.
The party’s 1968 debacle is most vividly remembered for the melee outside its Chicago convention when the forces of the old Democratic machine, in the persons of the members of Mayor Richard Daley’s brute squad, physically crushed the protestors from the party’s growing anti-war wing.
But the other big revolt was coming out of Alabama and across the Deep South, where pro-segregation Democrats had been in rebellion for 20 years over the party’s move away from Jim Crow. With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the revolt broke into the open with the culture war candidacy of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who left his party to launch an independent candidacy.
Aside from unrest over Vietnam and race relations, the party had another problem: It had no leader. The once-mighty President Lyndon Johnson had been pushed out of his own re-election bid by a weak win in New Hampshire against anti-war radical Sen. Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota. Johnson’s health was a wreck and his confidence was badly rattled, so he dropped out in dramatic fashion with a national television address.
That left party leaders with McCarthy’s fellow Minnesotan, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was hardly a heartthrob of the left-wing. Johnson’s departure had also kicked the door open for his chief rival in the party, Sen. Robert Kennedy, who jumped into the race in mid-March.
In those days only 14 states held presidential primary elections, which limited the degree to which Kennedy could gain traction against the incumbent vice president. But he could use the contests to consolidate the left-wing vote by beating McCarthy. But after his June 4 victory in California, Kennedy was murdered by Palestinian gunman Sirhan Sirhan over Kennedy’s support for Israel.
While Kennedy and McGovern had been struggling over the left-wing in the primaries, Humphrey had been focused on the majority of states that used a convention system to select their delegates. The party machine delivered, and Humphrey went to Chicago as the prohibitive favorite and easily beat McGovern. But the story was the riots outside, not the balloons and bunting inside.
We know how it ended up: Rebel Democrats in the South and a northern party bitterly divided over the war were no match for former Vice President Richard Nixon who promised to get the U.S. out of Vietnam in some dignified way and who also had learned to exploit the same cultural anxieties that propelled Wallace’s surprising success among northern blue-collar whites.
The good news for Americans today is that things are hardly as chaotic or violent as they were back then. The bad news is that the solutions Democrats sought for their misery 52 years ago are drivers of our current bipartisan dysfunction.
The answer Democrats settled on was, not surprisingly, more democracy. Humphrey had won the nomination without winning a single primary because so few states had such contests. In 1972, Democrats in 32 states held primaries or caucuses. By 1976 just a few states were holding on to the old convention system.
For many years, this more open approach worked pretty well. It accommodated the demands of insurgence for a way into the process – Jimmy Carter’s 1976 nomination seemed to prove the point – but also preserved a way for the party establishment to prevent pandemonium.
The smoke-filled rooms had not been eliminated, but rather moved. The so-called “invisible primary,” in which candidates scurry for the backing of wealthy donors, party insiders, media mavens, and other establishment figures helped close the door a little bit too fringe candidates.
But the attacks on party power did not end with the move toward primaries. A decades-long effort that grew out of the same movement was aimed at limiting the influence of money in politics. What it really ended up doing was limiting the amount of money in parties.
The movement eventually succeeded in sharply limiting resources available to parties, known as “soft money.” But subsequent court decisions would open the door to outside expenditures on a level Americans had never seen before. Small-dollar donations and gargantuan super PACs supplanted the remaining power of the parties.
America is now poised for a general election in which a self-avowed nationalist will confront a proud socialist. And there is growing concern that the two parties are on a path toward increasing extremism, with a majority of Americans in the middle looking on with increasing alarm.
It is not clear that the Democrats have any better way than to deal with the populist insurgency of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders than Republicans did with their own populist four years ago.
But it is clear that how Democrats deal with their current crisis will likely shape the solutions that come out of our harrowing moment. Wherever you hang your partisan hat, you have a vested interest in the result.
THE RULEBOOK: PROCEED WITH CAUTION
“Wise politicians will be cautious about fettering the government with restrictions that cannot be observed because they know that every breach of the fundamental laws, though dictated by necessity, impairs that sacred reverence which ought to be maintained in the breast of rulers towards the constitution of a country, and forms a precedent for other breaches where the same plea of necessity does not exist at all or is less urgent and palpable.” – Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 25
SANDERS LOOKS FOR KNOCKOUT WIN IN SOUTH CAROLINA
Fox News: “Bernie Sanders is on a roll. The self-described Democratic socialist swept to a huge Nevada victory over the weekend and polls indicate he now has a shot at even winning South Carolina’s primary this Saturday—a contest that once was seen as former Vice President Joe Biden’s firewall. The latest RealClearPolitics average for the state reflects a very tight race between the two. Biden remains in the lead with 24.5 percent of the vote, but Sanders is nipping at his heels with 21.5 percent, as the former vice president’s support has declined in the state. If Sanders is able to secure yet another primary victory with South Carolina, it would mark at least a three-state sweep out of the 2020 gate heading into Super Tuesday. Such an accomplishment, boosted by an enthusiastic base that turns out to vote and donates in big numbers, could render him just what party elders and members of the Democratic establishment fear—unstoppable.”
Sanders defends Fidel Castro – Fox News: “Sen. Bernie Sanders, the frontrunner for the Democrats’ presidential nomination, doubled down on his support for some of the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro’s policies, saying in an interview that aired Sunday, ‘it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad.’ Speaking to CBS News’ ‘60 Minutes,’ Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, pointed to social welfare programs introduced under Castro’s regime that he described as redeeming, despite the communist dictator’s often repressive human-rights violations against Cubans. ‘We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. Do you know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?’ Sanders told Anderson Cooper. … In a resurfaced speech given at the University of Vermont in 1986, Sanders praised the socialist policies implemented in Cuba by the Castro regime…”
Article News: Foxnews