Are the Democrats rerunning 1968?

March 14, 2008

The pundits' too-clever-by-half analogies for this year's presidential nomination battle are wrong.

A SPECTER is haunting the Democrats in 2008--the specter of 1968 and the party's disastrous convention in Chicago.

At least that's how some Democratic politicos and pundits are putting it. The argument goes like this: As the battle for the presidential nomination between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama goes on with neither overwhelming the other, the likelihood increases that the "superdelegates"--almost 800 party officials and interest group leaders with an automatic seat at the national convention--will have to anoint a candidate.

If the anointing appears to be a backroom deal, supporters of the losing candidate will protest and send the convention into tumult. A divided Democratic Party would limp away from the disaster in Denver mortally wounded, and lose the November election to Republican John McCain.

"There will be chaos at the convention," former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder told Bob Schieffer on CBS's Face the Nation. "If you think 1968 was bad, you watch: In 2008, it will be worse."

But at this point, the comparisons to 1968 are little more than political spin (coming mostly from the Obama camp). And the members of the punditocracy that echo them are merely demonstrating their political illiteracy.

IN 1968, the three-cornered race for the Democratic nomination--between Sens. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, competing for the votes of Democrats opposed to the Vietnam War, and Lyndon Johnson's pro-war Vice President Hubert Humphrey--was thrown into chaos by Kennedy's assassination in June.

By the time the party met in Chicago, Humphrey had collected the support of about 1,000 of the more than 1,300 delegates he needed to clinch the nomination. Humphrey hadn't entered any open primary, but he had won the pledges of delegates chosen from closed caucuses and state conventions that mostly expressed the will of the Democratic Party apparatus.

When the Democrats arrived in Chicago in August, the party bosses met behind a phalanx of police and National Guardsmen to choose Humphrey over McCarthy. Meanwhile, radical antiwar protesters, joined in some cases by "McCarthy kids"--young people drawn to McCarthy's antiwar candidacy--faced down what Sen. Abraham Ribicoff memorably called "Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago."

The spectacle of police beating and arresting thousands of antiwar protesters followed on the political crises earlier that year--the Tet Offensive that forced President Johnson to give up on re-election; the assassinations of Kennedy and Martin Luther King; and the urban rebellions that swept the country after King's murder.

All of these played into Republican Richard Nixon's appeal to both "law and order" and "lowering our voices." He was able to squeak out a victory over Humphrey in the fall.

While this history tracks superficially with the "worst-case scenarios" being spun this year, there really is no comparison.

In 1968, the Democrats were running with the albatross of the Vietnam War around their necks. And the third-party candidacy of racist populist George Wallace gave Southern Democrats opposed to civil rights a way-station in their migration to the Republicans. Despite all this, Humphrey still almost won--suggesting that the chaos in Chicago wasn't on people's minds by November.

The charges and countercharges being flung between the Obama and Clinton camps are standard-issue campaign tactics more notable for their mildness than their harshness.

Who can really tell the difference between Clinton's and Obama's health care plans? The miniscule contrasts cover for the fact that both amount to huge government-backed giveaways to the insurance industry.

Many of the charges are little more than campaign hot air. For example, to belittle Obama's string of victories in smaller states that choose delegates through party caucuses, the Clinton people and their surrogates have recently taken to denouncing the caucus system as unrepresentative because working people aren't able to spend hours participating, unlike students and middle-class professionals (presumed Obama supporters).

But only a few weeks ago, the Clinton campaign was attacking the Nevada caucuses because it feared members of the Culinary Workers Union, which supported Obama, would dominate it.

The voting bases of the candidates are different (Blacks, middle-class professionals and young people for Obama; working-class whites, older voters and women for Clinton), but no huge chasm separates them.

That's why a recent Economist commentary descends to the level of pop psychology without really explaining anything: "The battle for the Democratic Party is so bitter because it is a battle over culture. Mrs. Clinton's supporters look at Mr. Obama's and see latte-drinking elitists. Mr. Obama's supporters look at Mrs. Clinton's and smell all sorts of ancestral sins, not least racism. The two groups neither like nor respect each other."

The last sentence may be true, but not for the reasons the Economist gives. The idea that either of the two presidential candidates who hauled in the most money from Wall Street in this cycle is more comfortable hanging out in a union hall rather than in a trendy café is nonsense.

THIS IS another place where the too-clever-by-half analogies to 1968 are meaningless. The idea that the political polarization in society at large today shares any genuine similarity with that of 1968 isn't credible.

The main political question that divided the Democrats was the most important issue of the period--the Vietnam War. Today, an overwhelming number of rank-and-file Democrats (and Americans at large) oppose the war in Iraq and President Bush's handling of the economy. It's the Republicans who are on the other side of public opinion.

A dirty backroom deal that steals the nomination from Obama may disillusion some of his younger followers. And some may not vote for Clinton as a result. But vastly more of those who have been mobilized around the lowest common denominator of political activity--a mainstream electoral campaign--will accept Clinton as a "lesser evil" to McCain, and vote for her anyway.

By contrast, in 1968, thousands of "McCarthy kids" who learned the hard way that the Democrats were a pro-war party had a left-wing alternative to look toward. Many broke from electoral politics and joined the radical antiwar, Black Power and socialist movements of the day.

Will a "brokered convention" with floor fights over delegates from Florida and Michigan and backroom bargaining by superdelegates produce what the Democrats fear--a McCain presidency?

While this is certainly possible, it's unlikely. The terrain of mainstream American politics appears to be shifting.

The flood of corporate money to the Democrats and the huge turnout for the Democratic primaries are "leading indicators" that both the ruling class and millions of Americans want to see an end to the Republicans' incompetent and disastrous rule. One harbinger of a coming Republican wipeout may be last week's victory by a Democratic candidate in a special election to replace former House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

While the Democrats can still blow it, the fact that they've already won the "money primary" many times over is likely to be more predictive of what will happen in November than what happens in August in Denver.

Stacked against a candidate who will represent a third term of the Bush administration, either Democrat would have to be the favorite.

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