Sunday, March 23, 2008


It’s thirty years since the campaign of 1968, the year the Democratic Party lost the ability to command the presidency, pretty much regularly, but for two anomalies: the switch to Carter in ‘76 -- because of the backlash to Nixon’s mis-doings and Ford’s ineffectual leadership (a backlash that wasn’t sustained for more than a term), and the election of Clinton in ‘92, in part a backlash to Bush I’s misguided leadership, but more properly seen as a surge of interest in an exciting new candidate, where the key to the popular vote was a larger number of voters of the Baby Boomer generation choosing to vote for one of their own. I think it also didn’t hurt that Clinton was not a Washington insider, that his so-called “inexperience” included inexperience with the business-as-usual Beltway pros who had come to dominate politics in the ‘80s. I’m not saying Clinton actually lived up to that perception, and part of the disinclination with the former First Lady is with the degree to which a “Clinton machine” aims not simply to elect its candidate but seeks to become synonymous with the best interests of the Democratic Party.

If that were true, the Democrats would have to accept Hillary Clinton as the only candidate possibly able to defeat the Republican candidate. In other words, they would have to rest on the assumption that the Clinton machine together with the historic candidacy of a female presidential nominee would entail enough strength to best whatever the Republicans came up with. And since you can usually judge a Party’s strength by the strength of their candidate in any given year, things would bode well for a Clinton election: McCain is not the kind of candidate that will command the unquestioning support of his Party; as such he’s a candidate much closer to some of the lackadaisical candidates the Democrats came up with when they had to run against Nixon’s re-election, Reagan’s re-election, or the first Bush’s candidacy. Actually, I think McCain has a better chance with the general public than McGovern, Mondale or Dukakis did, but, even so, he, like them, is a candidate unlikely to galvanize his Party like Reagan did or Clinton did for the Democrats.

What Barack Obama brings to that scenario is closer to the excitement of Bill Clinton’s initial candidacy, but he also is able to present an intelligent and convincing distance from the kind of hack political machinery that the Clintons have become synonymous with. And it’s that political machinery which was the undoing of the Democrats in 1968.

What is significant about that year is that it’s the year when the forces in the Democratic Party that were against the war in Vietnam as the primary policy in need of change, vied for a voice in the Party that had itself started that war -- and which could not officially renounce it. What many in the Party, and not just the young, were looking for was a leadership that could say “we were wrong, let’s do something about it.” That tension pulled the Democrats apart and created a large-scale disillusion with the Party -- when the endorsement of Humphrey was perceived as an endorsement of Johnson’s policies and thus a “stay the course” mentality about the war. I don’t get the sense that the Republican party today is suffering anything like the internal dissension and soul-searching of the Democrats of that year, but to the degree that there is any dissension at all, it weakens the united front of party politics. On the Democrats side, this year, the war isn’t “their” war (to make that clear Obama perhaps stresses Senator Clinton’s vote for the war more than is strictly necessary, but it does help to focus the reason why the war should be distanced from the Democrats -- to allow them the role of cleaning up the other team’s mess as Nixon claimed to be able to do). And this adds to the strength of the Party seeking the presidency rather than the one already holding it, as it did in ‘68.

But to me the significant lesson of ‘68 is how ineffectual the Democrats can become when they allow themselves to be dominated by the dissensions in their Party. Some films I saw recently about the ‘68 election -- one on Gene McCarthy, the other on Nixon -- demonstrated, in juxtaposition, the dramatic difference in the two Parties’ view of the country and of their relation to their constituency. McCarthy was part of the soul-searching, criticizing a sitting Democratic president, attempting to articulate a new groundswell within the Party; Nixon was speaking as the candidate for law and order who would be able to end the war “with honor,” but whose main task was to turn the country away from its vocal and attention-getting radical minority. It worked. The Republicans, if bland and vaguely authoritarian, promoting the self-interest of the powerful in their Party, are generally successful at the united front, the sense that their ideological message is born of a kind of common sense populism that has always been the backbone of successful politics in this country. The Democrats never have that: the Democrats have to try to articulate a “common vision” that can include a disparate collectivity of special groups, interests, and diversity. Their strength is that they seem to welcome so many different voices into the discussion, their weakness is that it’s very hard to effectively represent those views -- to walk the political line that can negotiate the minefield of the political tensions of the day.

And the effort to do that is what often makes the Democrats seem so inefficient, confused, contradictory. The Republican candidate can often stand strong on a platform that essentially equates with “not a Democrat” -- which means not “weak,” not “liberal,” not “bleeding-heart,” not a racial, ethnic mix, not insufficiently manly, etc, etc. But this time those last two qualities might be key to the defeat of the Republican’s manly white-bread old school candidate. And that’s why Obama’s recent speech about race was necessary. Because the Democrats, unlike their counterparts, have always recognized race as an issue, as something that the dominant white politics of the Republican Party has never effectively dealt with since the untimely death of Abraham Lincoln. And what Obama was able to articulate -- for the first time by any elected official, let alone one seeking a more powerful, important office -- was the bigotry on both sides of the black-white divide, the grudges, the uneasiness, the -- to use the word that has come to have a psychological rather than political tinge -- issues.

It’s fitting, certainly. If there is going to be a black man in the White House, then he should have something to say about race -- a point of view that neither McCain nor Clinton (for all her standing on her husband’s record) can articulate. Whether or not Obama becomes president, he has at least contributed a level of lucidity to one of the underlying problems with the Democratic Party -- how united can that “rainbow coalition” ever truly be? -- and has put it on the table as a rallying point rather than a nagging, skeptical doubt. I’d like to think the Democratic Party will be stronger for that, and that they won’t, as they did in ‘68, let the party-hack machinery decide the outcome of the Convention. Humphrey had a “faultless” record on civil rights too, and he backed the war, and he won the nomination in the name of business as usual, to the distress of many who then abandoned the Party . . . to the Republicans’ gain.

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