1968: A mixed metaphor for 2016

Patrick Hostert

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I recently read Julian E. Zelizer’s piece in Politico Magazine, “What Bernie Sanders Should Learn from Eugene McCarthy” and its analysis of the lessons to be learned from the 1968 election cycle confused me.

 Let me lay out the rough sketch of the 1968 primary and convention: The war in Vietnam was receiving a lot of criticism, as was President Lyndon Johnson and his administration. Many young people and anti-war voters were rallying around Eugene McCarthy, a senator from Minnesota.

 At this time in the Democratic Party, only 14 of the 50 states had primaries. The first primary was New Hampshire and the second was Wisconsin. With McCarthy’s large support in New Hampshire and what looked like a coming win for McCarthy in Wisconsin, President Johnson decided to drop his bid for re–election. Robert Kennedy saw this as an opportunity and joined the primary process as another anti-war candidate.

 Meanwhile, Vice President Hubert Humphrey began to court the unpledged delegates in the party from states without primaries. Kennedy followed suit, but kept winning some primaries as well, like Indiana, Nebraska, California and South Dakota. But of the 14 primaries, McCarthy was still the front-runner, 8 percentage points ahead of Kennedy.

 Kennedy’s assassination by Sirhan Sirhan, however, threw the Democratic Party into chaos just before the convention in Chicago. Because of a bitter rivalry between the McCarthy and Kennedy campaigns, most of Kennedy’s delegates moved to Sen. George McGovern from South Dakota, while only some went to McCarthy.

 This division of the anti-war movement made it possible for the Democratic delegates and party elites to elect Humphrey as the Democratic nominee, despite him not winning a single primary. And the whole while, outside the doors of the convention, anti-war protesters were literally being teargased and beaten by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s police.

 Though he only lost the popular vote by 0.7 percent in November, Humphrey lost the general election heavily because of his large deficit in electoral college votes. Republican candidate Richard Nixon won handily. And the writer of the piece I cited above, Princeton Professor Julian Zelizer, cites Eugene McCarthy’s reluctance to campaign for Humphrey as the reason for the Democratic Party’s loss. He uses this historical election to prod the Bernie Sanders campaign to support Hillary Clinton if he loses the nomination.

 “And (Sanders) should think hard about what happened when McCarthy chose to stay clear of Humphrey rather than support him,” Zelizer writes. It’s implied that Bernie should campaign for Clinton in the general if he loses the nomination.

 But how could this be an accurate analysis of the 1968 election? How could the onus be on McCarthy to have supported Humphrey, a candidate who was part of the incredibly unpopular administration? So unpopular, in fact, that President Johnson had to step out of the campaign with Humphrey taking his place. Maybe Humphrey was a bad nominee for the Democratic Party.

 Humphrey entered late and had to use the party elites rather than the popular vote to garner his delegates. Though Kennedy was assassinated, between him and McCarthy, they showed through their vote total that a large portion of the Democratic Party was anti-war and very critical of the Johnson Administration.

 And yet at the convention, against literal protests on the street outside, the party elected Humphrey, a member of the unpopular administration who had not run a grassroots campaign in the months prior, and who had gathered only 2 percent of the popular vote in the primaries.

 But Selizer writes that “In the end, McCarthy’s unwillingness to swing his supporters into the Humphrey camp didn’t just help Humphrey lose the election that year — it also helped paved the way for Republican dominance of the electoral map for decades to come.”

 I disagree. What will truly pave the way for continued and strengthened Republican dominance in November is the dismissal of the Sanders movement, the ongoing voter suppression and continued neglect of the working white, who have all been jumping ship from the Democratic Party in droves to swim with the real estate mogul and current Republican front-runner Donald Trump. Party elites deciding elections against the will of a mobilized and energetic figure like McCarthy or Sanders is what killed the New Deal Democratic Party before.

 If, like what will most likely happen, the Democratic nominee is decided by the superdelegates, the nomination of a Humphrey-like figure such as Clinton would be devastating to the Democratic Party. Clinton is incredibly unpopular, with a favorability rating better only than Trump’s.

 Her cozy relationship with Wall Street, credit companies, big-pharma and foreign funders, and her blunders as Secretary of State make her wildly unpopular on both sides of the aisle, just as Humphrey was wildly unpopular for his public support of the Vietnam War. Clinton even voted in favor of the Vietnam-like Iraq War.

 Sure, Hillary has raised a lot of money for the Democratic Party. But Sanders has transformed fundraising in politics forever, raising more money than Clinton, and without a super pac. Clinton has a lot of experience in international affairs but Sanders has the highest favorability rating of any of the candidates and does better against GOP candidates in hypothetical general election polls.

 Clinton would be the first female president, but Sanders wins those under 30, the Democratic Party of the future, by 80 percent or more. If the Democratic Party wants longevity and a strong general election candidate, the chaotic 1968 election cycle should teach the Democratic Party elites that candidates elected by the elite in smoky rooms behind closed doors lose.

 Support the candidate on the right side of history. It’s not Bernie who needs to think hard about 1968. It’s the Democratic Party’s elite who need to think hard about who they support and who is in step with the will of the people.