Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Visions of 1968: Bernie Sanders and Eugene McCarthy

War raged in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. More than a thousand American servicemen were dying in Vietnam each month, and unrest set the streets of the United States aflame. A profound generational gap separated young from old, and the racial divide was as complex and as violent as ever. Division defined the era. It is always easy to conflate the current hard time as the worst hard time, but things in 1968 looked especially bleak, as a war without end carried on, and American leaders were gunned down in Memphis and Los Angeles. Against today's politics-as-reality-television backdrop, 1968 appears dense with a wholly different sense of gravity.

But there are relevant comparisons to be made, particularly in terms of the 1968 Democratic presidential race and the one that is shaping up for 2016. I think past is indeed prologue in this limited case.

Lyndon Johnson was mired in the Vietnam War, to which he was committed, for better or worse. His social welfare programs, Medicare for instance, had been subsumed by a legacy of military failure and the growing sense that tens of thousands of Americans were dying in a place and for a cause with no strategic importance for the United States. Early in the war Johnson believed he could deliver  both 'guns and butter,' his phrase for pursuing the war to a victorious end while also delivering Great Society domestic programs that would forever change Americans' relationship with their government. But the collective attention of American society focused by 1968 only on the war. Vietnam would be Johnson's legacy.

Enter Eugene McCarthy, a progressive anti-war Senator from Minnesota, who in 1967 took the bold step (for an established politician, that is) of challenging his party's presidential incumbent for the White House. Generally speaking, incumbents do not draw credible opposition in their races for reelection to the White House, but Gene jumped in. He ran hard, inspired a clutch of young folks who volunteered for the campaign by shaving, putting on ties (getting 'Clean for Gene') and going door to door for their brave and bold anti-war candidate. And it worked. In New Hampshire, McCarthy came within a hair's breadth (7 percentage points) of beating Lyndon Johnson in the Democratic presidential primary. A scant four days later, the ground sufficiently prepared by McCarthy's bravery, Robert F. Kennedy joined the race and immediately became the odds-on favorite in the progressive/anti-war camps, much to McCarthy's chagrin. A few more days go by, and Johnson, reading the writing on the wall, becomes the first president in modern history to decline to run for a second term.

Fast forward to 2015. There is no powerful incumbent to head the ticket for the Democrats, but there is someone with incumbent-like name recognition and fundraising capacity, Hillary Clinton. Since her loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary has been the candidate of inevitability, ambling with seemingly little effort towards what appeared to be shoo-in nomination amongst a field of lesser-beings. Her toughest competition in the primary race promised to be her own history, the pant-suit clad skeletons of her ample closet. 

But then Bernie Sanders, like a modern Eugene McCarthy, considered more or less un-electable by many in the mainstream of American politics, including those in the Democratic party, bravely dove in to the race. Like McCarthy, Sanders's populism has struck a chord amongst liberals, who have always looked somewhat dubiously at Hillary. Like McCarthy, young people have turned out with an especially high enthusiasm for Sanders. Like McCarthy, Sanders has become surprisingly competitive, especially in New Hampshire. Like McCarthy, Sanders has entered the race with passion and honesty, and with that passion and honesty he has made the inevitable vulnerable. And like McCarthy, Bernie Sanders won't ever be president.

Because he has now cleared the way for an establishment candidate, just like Gene McCarthy did in 1968. Obviously tragedy struck that Democratic field with the assassination of RFK in Los Angeles the night after he won the California Democratic primary, but McCarthy, who assumed all the initial risk, took all the early arrows, was toast by then. McCarthy was third in delegates the night that RFK was killed, the candidate that looked so promising so early, who had chased an incumbent president from the field, was done.

Bernie Sanders has softened the ground, made the race safe, for Joe Biden. Hillary Clinton, who a year ago looked inevitable enough to keep Biden out of the race, now looks eminently beatable to Biden, and Sanders (along with Clinton's poor handling of several issues) helped to prepare that ground. Clinton as LBJ, Sanders as McCarthy, and Biden as Hubert Humphrey. I suspect that Biden will enter the race, and that Joe Biden will be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States in 2016.     

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