The 2008 Presidential Race: A 1972 Redux?

The desperate tactics employed by Senator Hillary Clinton to capture the Democratic presidential nomination from Senator Barack Obama contain some remarkable parallels with the efforts of another favored candidate of the party establishment to block the nomination of another insurgent Democrat 36 years ago. In both cases, the establishment candidate -- with little chance late in the primary campaign of obtaining enough delegates to secure the nomination -- committed to a strategy of not only trying to twist the rules so to pull off a coup at the convention, but engaging in systematic attacks against the front-runner in ways that appeared to be designed to weaken him in the very areas that would most benefit the Republicans in the general election campaign.

In 1972, the leader late in the Democratic primary race was South Dakota Senator George McGovern who -- like Obama -- had galvanized youthful voters, anti-war activists, small donors and other party progressives in a grass roots campaign that had brought new life and energy into a party which had narrowly lost the election four years earlier with a weak pro-war candidate at the helm. At the start of the campaign, the Republicans had looked vulnerable in November, with an unpopular war dragging on and an incumbent administration beset by scandals. However, as the liberal Midwestern senator defied expectations by running up a string of primary victories, former Vice-President Hubert Humphrey -- who, like Clinton, seemed to feel that he was owed the nomination and the chance to be president -- sought to both discredit McGovern in the eyes of voters and re-write the rules for seating state delegations at the party's convention that summer.

The Credentials Fight

In 1972, rather than a winner-take-all system as in previous statewide presidential primary elections, Democratic Party reformers successfully encouraged virtually all primary states to agree to divide their delegates roughly proportional to the popular vote. In the case of California, however -- then the last major state to vote in the primary calendar, in which Humphrey had been predicted to win a plurality -- Humphrey's supporters prevailed over McGovern backers and other reformers in rejecting proportionality, getting the state party to agree that all of California's delegates be assigned to the winner of the primary.

Much to the chagrin of the party establishment, however, it was McGovern who ended up winning the California primary and all of the state's delegates. Several weeks later, however, Humphrey and his influential supporters convinced party leaders to retroactively assign the delegates proportionally. This dispute was critical since, if McGovern was able to keep all his delegates, he would have a sufficient number to be nominated on the first ballot. With California's large delegation split proportionally, however, he would fall just short of an overall majority, thereby enabling party bosses to hand the nomination to Humphrey on the second ballot. With the credentials battle still undecided, two separate delegations came from California to Miami for the convention, with neither delegation allowed to be seated until the convention as a whole voted on the issue the night before the balloting for president. Despite this desperate effort to, in McGovern's words, "put Humpty-Dumpty together again," the delegates in the convention hall voted to allow McGovern to keep all of his delegates. As a result, Humphrey withdrew his name from consideration and McGovern was nominated by an overwhelming majority.

Unfortunately, this bruising fight left the party bitterly divided, contributing to McGovern's defeat in November.

(This fight at the convention also led to another major setback for McGovern's presidential hopes: with so much time and energy by McGovern and his aides focused upon the credentials battle and unsure until the last minute that he would even be the party's nominee, the choice of a running mate had to be made hastily and at the last minute. As a result, McGovern chose Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton, who was revealed shortly after his nomination to have struggled with serious bouts of depression and had undergone electroshock therapy. McGovern was then pressured to take the unprecedented step of dropping Eagleton from the ticket -- replacing him with Sargent Shriver -- thereby resulting in an additional controversy which further doomed McGovern's candidacy.)

In a similar scenario, Clinton appears to be attempting to get the Democratic Party leadership to retroactively re-write the rules allocating delegates so to wrest the nomination away from Obama, this time in regard to the delegations representing Michigan and Florida. After initially agreeing to not recognize the results of the primaries in these states in deference to party leaders who saw the votes as too early in the calendar, Clinton is now insisting that the results be honored. In Michigan, Obama withdrew his name from the ballot as requested by party officials while Clinton kept her name on the ballot, thereby running essentially unopposed. Not surprisingly, she won, and is now insisting that the majority of Michigan's delegates be assigned to her. Though Obama and the other candidates' names did appear on the ballot in the Florida primary, which Clinton also won, Obama was still put at an unfair disadvantage, since -- without the opportunity for voters to get to know him -- it was easy for the better-known Clinton to coast to victory. Indeed, in virtually every primary, polls initially showed Obama far behind Clinton before active campaigning began, with Obama's support increasing once he began touring the state and advertizing his message. In honoring party rules, however, he never got a chance to do so in Florida.

If the results of the remaining primaries and the preferences of the remaining uncommitted super-delegates are even remotely close to what is expected, Obama should have little trouble winning the nomination on the first ballot. However, if Clinton's credentials challenges succeed and the Florida and Michigan delegations are seated based upon these non-contested primaries, it will be far more difficult for Obama to emerge as the nominee.

In any case, if Clinton chooses to press the issue, there is a real possibility of a nasty and divisive credentials fight at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, just as there was at the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami, thereby making a Democratic victory in the general election far less likely.

Reinforcing Republican Stereotypes

Like the Clintons and the Democratic Party elites today, Humphrey and the party establishment of 1972 were willing to attack McGovern in language that reinforced the worst stereotypes about the left-wing of their party, thereby alienating the independent, moderate Republican, and centrist Democratic voters who would be needed to win the general election. Both in 1972 and today, it appears as if there was an effort to insure that the anti-establishment candidate and his popular grass roots movement would, in having the temerity to best the old guard's anointed leader, go down to defeat in November. Humphrey, like Clinton today, behaved as if he believed that if he and his allies could no longer control the Democratic Party, they were willing to destroy its chances of capturing the White House that year.

There are indeed a whole series of discomforting parallels between these two races for Democratic presidential nomination: By twisting his opponent's words, engaging in guilt-by-association, ridiculing the front-runner's intellectual and nuanced approaches to complex problems, and portraying him as being much further to the left politically than he was in reality, Humphrey and his allies in the media and the party establishment in 1972 created a situation whereby McGovern, once he emerged as the Democratic presidential nominee that July, was so discredited in the minds of millions of voters that a victory in the general election that fall became impossible.

For example, just prior to the Nebraska primary in early May that year, the New York Times reported how "supporters of Senator Humphrey have tried to touch an anti-liberal match to the explosive issues of marijuana laws, abortion, aid to parochial schools and amnesty for draft evaders. Senator McGovern's supporters have called this a 'smear' campaign that distorted the Senator's position." Similarly, in the televised debate just prior to the California primary, Humphrey attacked McGovern's proposed cuts in military spending, claiming that "they will cut into muscle, into the very fiber of our national security." Humphrey ridiculed McGovern's proposals for fighting poverty by referring to them as "his massive unrealistic...welfare program." And, though McGovern in 1972, like Obama today, was a strong backer of Israel, the Humphrey campaign - like the Clinton campaign -- accused his opponent of being weak and suspect in his support of the Jewish state.

In its June 6 edition, six weeks prior to the Democratic convention in Miami, the New York Times noted how, "In a preview of the kind of attack the Republicans can be expected to make on Mr. McGovern," House Republican leader John Rhodes "used the words of Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, Mr. McGovern's primary rival, to picture the South Dakota Senator as an advocate of lavish Government spending and weakening defense cuts." On June 11, the paper reported how "Mr. Humphrey provided ample ammunition for the Republicans in his California attack on Mr. McGovern."

In addition, Humphrey's supporters repeatedly highlighted McGovern's longhaired and casually-dressed supporters as part of a broader effort to link this devout Methodist and committed family man with the worst excesses of the counter-culture, as well as emphasizing his failure to get as much support from traditional trade unions and white working class voters as their candidate.

Ever since McGovern's landslide defeat that November, the Democratic Party establishment has tried to claim that the loss was because McGovern was somehow too left-wing, completely ignoring that is was Humphrey and the Democratic Party establishment which systematically campaigned to portray him as too left-wing. As McGovern -- a preacher's son from a small farming town who had repeatedly won statewide races in a decidedly conservative Republican state -- put it, "How the hell do you get elected in South Dakota for 20 years if you're a wild-eyed radical?"

While there certainly were other factors, some of which were of McGovern's own making, which also contributed to his landslide loss to Richard Nixon in the November election, it was the destructive attacks by his fellow Democrats that played a decisive role. This should give pause to supporters of Hillary Clinton as to whether it makes sense to continue supporting her candidacy in light of her divisive and unfair criticisms against Obama. (See my article The Clinton Smear Campaign Against Obama.)

Vietnam and Iraq

In 1972, as today, one of the biggest issues on voters' minds was America's continued involvement in an unpopular foreign war. This gave the anti-war McGovern a decisive advantage over his leading rivals for the nomination. As a result, it was to Humphrey's advantage to try to minimize their differences.

As with Hillary Clinton in regard to the Iraq War, Hubert Humphrey had lost his once strong support among party liberals as a result of his strident support for the Vietnam War. McGovern, by contrast, had opposed the war since his election to the U.S. Senate in 1962, becoming the very first to speak out on the Senate floor in opposition. Under intense pressure from the Senate Democratic leadership, who insisted that it would provide President Lyndon Johnson with the political cover to resist calls for further escalation, the freshman McGovern joined all but two of his 535 Congressional colleagues in voting in favor the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August 1964. For the rest of the decade and beyond, however, McGovern served as the Senate's leading anti-war voice while Humphrey, both as a senator and vice-president, was counted among Washington's leading Vietnam War supporters.

Just prior to his 1972 run for the Democratic presidential nomination, however, Humphrey belatedly and opportunistically came out against the Vietnam War, just as Hillary Clinton belatedly and opportunistically came out against the Iraq War just before she launched her candidacy last year. In the 1972 primaries, Humphrey belittled his differences with McGovern over Vietnam by insisting he was more qualified to bring the troops home and that he and McGovern were "both wrong on Vietnam," equating McGovern's reluctant support for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution with his own vigorous decade-long defense of the war while ignoring McGovern's principled leadership and steadfast opposition to the war during that same period. Similarly, Clinton has claimed that because the freshman Obama reluctantly joined his Senate colleagues in 2005 and 2006 in voting in favor of two unanimous spending bills which included continued funding for the Iraq War, he is therefore no more anti-war than she is, ignoring Obama's outspoken opposition to the war in the months leading up to the invasion while she was casting votes and giving speeches supporting it. [See my articles Obama vs. Clinton - October 2002 and Hillary Clinton on Iraq.]

Despite Humphrey's desperate effort to re-make himself an anti-war candidate during the 1972 presidential campaign, he was unable to quell the tide of support for McGovern, who - in opposing the war from the beginning -- was recognized by the majority of Democratic voters as having the necessary foresight and judgment to become president of the United States. The grass roots campaign which enabled McGovern to win the nomination signified an unprecedented mobilizing of a new generation of party activists demanding change, not just from the incumbent Republicans, but from the traditional Democratic Party foreign policy elites as well. Such insolence could not be tolerated, however, so the decision was made by Humphrey and the party establishment to try to bring him down, even though it helped guarantee the party's defeat in November.

The 2008 Campaign

In today's contest for the Democratic nomination, Obama enjoys what most independent observers believe is an almost insurmountable lead in delegates (as well a solid lead in the popular vote and in the total number of primary and caucus victories.) In order to derail Obama's chances of becoming president and sabotage the popular grass root movement which has brought him to the cusp of victory -- arguably the most exciting thing to happen to the Democratic Party in years -- Hillary Clinton has launched a series of attacks which will almost certainly fail to deny him the nomination but could very possibly cause him to lose the general election to Republican John McCain.

Just a couple of months ago, polls showed that Obama's negative ratings were at only 8%, one of the lowest ever for a serious presidential contender and one that almost guaranteed a landslide victory in November, possibly enough to result in a coattail effect that could produce a near veto-proof Democratic majority in Congress. Thanks in large part to the recent attacks by Clinton and her supporters, however, Barack Obama's negatives have now jumped to more than 40%. These polls have also indicated that the Clinton campaign's efforts to raise doubts in voters' minds about Obama's experience and his patriotism have been particularly effective.

More ominously, polls show that these attacks by Clinton and her supporters have resulted in Obama losing his once commanding lead over Senator McCain to the point that they are now in a statistical dead heat.

The Clinton campaign therefore keeps pushing the idea that Obama -- who would be the first person of color to receive a major party's presidential nomination -- is "unelectable," even though it is her attacks that are largely responsible for his decline in support. Ironically, Clinton's negative ratings in public opinion polls are far higher than Obama's and most of these polls also show her running behind McCain among likely voters in the general election.

Though Obama is not nearly as liberal as McGovern on most issues, this hasn't stopped Clinton, other Democratic leaders, and their allies in the media from trying to depict him otherwise. As journalist Robert Scheer put it, Clinton is using such tactics from the right as "radical-baiting associates to challenging his resolve in protecting the nation from foreign enemies" and Obama -- whom he accurately describes as "eminently sensible and centrist to a fault" -- is being depicted as "weak and even vaguely unpatriotic because he is thoughtful." Referring to the notorious Republican political operatives of previous elections who were largely responsible for the defeats of Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry, Al Gore and Michael Dukakis, Scheer adds "Neither Karl Rove nor Dick Morris could have done a better job."

As a result of Clinton's attacks, Obama has lost ground among moderate-to-conservative voters, more religiously-observant voters, and white working-class voters, leading political analyst John Judis of the New Republic to note how one can begin to see "the outlines of the old George McGovern coalition that haunted the Democrats during the '70s and '80s, led by college students and minorities."

Every week Clinton has engaged in such attacks against Obama, his polling numbers relative to McCain have declined. There are more than twelve weeks left before the Democratic Convention. At this rate, unless Clinton radically modifies her campaign strategy or shortly ends her quest for the nomination, Barack Obama - like George McGovern - may be destined to go down in defeat to the Republican nominee in November.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.