Ted Van Dyk: How the Election of 1968 Reshaped the Democratic Party





[Mr. Van Dyk's memoir, "Heroes, Hacks and Fools," was published earlier this year by University of Washington Press. He advised Democratic presidents and presidential candidates from the early 1960s to 1992.]

It was 40 years ago that the most disastrous modern-day national political convention convened in Chicago. The 1968 Democratic convention contributed to Richard Nixon's victory that fall and, in turn, the prolongation of the Vietnam War. It also set the Democratic Party on a course that it has yet to correct.

From 1964-68 I was an assistant and adviser to Hubert Humphrey, the eventual 1968 Democratic nominee. Humphrey entered 1968 trying both to maintain loyalty to President Lyndon Johnson and to work within the Johnson administration toward a negotiated peace in Vietnam.

When Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy chose to challenge LBJ's renomination on the war issue, Humphrey was politically trapped. His core liberal constituency began defecting to McCarthy and Kennedy. After Johnson unexpectedly decided not to seek re-election on March 31, Humphrey temporized about his own candidacy for nearly three weeks.

Martin Luther King had been murdered earlier in the month. Debate about Vietnam had become shrill and divisive. Humphrey told me he was temporizing because he intuited that "terrible, wrenching events are just over the horizon. I do not know what they are. But, if I run, I sense that I will be engulfed by them." Humphrey did finally declare his candidacy and, as he anticipated, was soon overtaken by such events.

The most jarring was the June 5 assassination of Robert Kennedy, on the night of his California primary victory. Humphrey had wanted a Kennedy victory to remove McCarthy from the contest. ("Robert Kennedy and I understand each other and will support each other, no matter who is nominated," he told me. "If McCarthy remains in the race he will plague both of us all the way to Chicago.")

Humphrey thus was left without real competition for the nomination, but facing a party torn by frustration on the war issue. (McCarthy ceased campaigning after Kennedy's death and had too few delegates to mount his own alternative candidacy in Chicago.) He attempted to seize the initiative by issuing his own independent Vietnam policy statement, but Johnson bullied him out of it.

FBI and Secret Service reports told us that organized disorders would be staged in Chicago. We expected unorganized protests as well. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley requested federal troops be sent to Chicago. When Attorney General Ramsey Clark turned him down, Daley said Chicago police would keep order their own way. They did.

At the convention itself, negotiations with McCarthy and Kennedy forces, represented then by Sen. George McGovern, appeared about to result in an acceptable peace plank. But Johnson intervened in the Platform Committee and among Southern and border-state delegates to block that plank. Humphrey and his running mate, Sen. Ed Muskie, left Chicago with their party more divided than before the convention, and without a penny in their campaign treasury.

Humphrey eventually broke with Johnson in a nationally televised speech Sept. 30. From that point forward, Vietnam dissent subsided and peace voters generally came home to Humphrey. But that would not be enough to win the election. The third-party candidacy of Alabama Gov. George Wallace captured traditionally Democratic blue-collar votes in northern industrial states such as New Jersey and Ohio and, thus won the election for Richard Nixon.

In the wake of 1968, party leaders drew the wrong lesson from the narrow loss to Nixon. Reform efforts focused on giving young, socially liberal voters greater representation and voice in the party. But they did not do anything to bring middle-American Democrats back home. Those voters would abandon the Democratic Party even more strongly in 1972, with George McGovern heading the ticket, and eventually would come to be known as Reagan Democrats after they cast their lot in huge numbers for the GOP in 1980.

I supported McGovern in 1972, serving as his platform committee coordinator and, in the general election, as his policy director. There I saw the fruits of the post-1968 reforms. Platform rules had been changed so that only 10% of members were needed to bring a minority plank to the general convention floor. A flood of social-issue planks thus made it to the Miami Beach convention and a national television audience, causing it to be termed the "acid, amnesty and abortion" convention by Republicans, media and a large Democrats-for-Nixon organization that formed immediately after.

Post-election data in 1972 showed the swing of what would later be called Reagan Democrats to Nixon to be far more marked than in 1968. By 1984, when Vice President Walter Mondale was nominated in San Francisco to oppose President Reagan's re-election, a new term came into common use to describe the Democratic Party and its platform: "San Francisco Democrats."

Since 1968, independent and on-the-fence voters have come to perceive that there are, in fact, two Democratic Parties represented by two kinds of candidates. There is the middle-income, middle-minded, socially more conservative, bread-and-butter Democratic Party. Then, there is the better-educated, higher-income, socially liberal Democratic Party. The candidates of these wings do not have their feet wholly in one camp or another. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton campaigned successfully as undefined populists, and benefited from weak Republican opposition. But as a rule, Democratic presidential candidates have not since 1968 been able to restore the party that was broken that year. Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, was the last Democratic presidential candidate to gain a national majority of white voters.

Hillary Clinton became the presidential candidate of Reagan Democrats -- plus over-50 women of all outlooks. Barack Obama became the candidate of more socially and educationally elevated Democrats -- plus African-American voters.

Will Mr. Obama, at the upcoming Democratic convention in Denver, be able to bring Reagan Democrats finally home?..

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