Down and Out With the Democrats? Maybe Not, Look at the '48 Election

Word has it that regardless of today's results in Indiana and North Carolina, the Democrats have already lost the presidential election. Until the Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama sounded like equally qualified presidential contenders with every reason to keep battling. They were refining their issues seriously and entertainingly and making mush of old sexist and racist barriers despite attempts by debate "moderators," as the television networks' agent provocateurs brand themselves, to entrap them in the mud-pits of white-male king-making.

What a transformation, though. Since March 4, Clinton and Obama have become uninteresting. They've abandoned issues for triggers. Their pandering to voters who cling to guns, gods and prejudice as badges of virtue reminds you of Republican primary contests or country music acts. Their greater purpose is lost to the egomaniacal compulsion to annihilate each other, and with them the party they presume to represent.

A few weeks ago it did seem like the Democrats would lose, but not because of self-destruction. Clinton or Obama would be a gift to the Republicans' well-honed machinery of character assassination. And for all its enlightened presumptions, today's median American voter -- old, white, fearful and reactionary -- can still muster a little nostalgia for rancid assumptions. When we assume we're being polite by saying that "America isn't ready to elect a woman or a black person," what we're really saying is that America is still as bigoted and misogynistic as ever if, in the 21st century, the very notion of a candidate's skin color or sex is capable on its own of raising questions of electability.

The weakness of John McCain's doddering candidacy and the equally doddering economy he's promising to steer with his predecessor's walker should've been Clinton-Obama's opportunity to vault over voters' prejudices. Instead, the two have chosen to work for the McCain campaign. The attacks they're leveling at each other will be the Republican camp's script against whichever candidate prevails by summer.

For all that, it'd be foolish to write off the Democrats. Conservatives, who hate it when Iraq is compared to Vietnam, love making comparisons between the Democrats' 1968 election, when they supposedly self-destructed, and 2008. But despite the Democrats' infighting that summer, Hubert Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon by barely 500,000 votes, while the Republican victory was aided mostly by an assassination -- Robert Kennedy's that June. Kennedy would have likely clobbered Nixon in the general election. Nor is it a footnote to remember that Democrats lost to a crook who even then had amassed a record of lies and frauds that would culminate in his and the presidency's disgrace. There are similarities there, to be sure, but only with the current administration.

If history is to be a guide at all, the more instructive comparison -- for both sides -- is the 1948 election. By then Democrats had held the White House 16 years. The nation really was tired of them. Republicans seemed to have a dream ticket in Thomas Dewey and Earl Warren, the hugely popular governors of New York and California. Democrats seemed hopelessly fractured. South Carolina's Strom Thurmond, a Democrat in a torrid love affair with Jim Crow at the time, was angry at Harry Truman for desegregating the military. He challenged him as a Dixiecrat. Henry Wallace, once Franklin Roosevelt's vice president, challenged Truman as a progressive (and correctly predicted that Truman's national security state would usher in a "century of fear"). Dewey, Warren, pollsters and newspaper editors took a GOP win for granted, running a leisurely campaign that almost sneered at the Democrats' perceived debacle. Truman won with more than 2 million votes to spare. He even claimed New York State.

Today, it isn't Bush fatigue that's playing Democrats' favor, but Republican fatigue: The party's religious and reactionary puppeteers have so disgusted the nation that the only candidate even GOP voters could stomach is a man who several times mulled a switch to the Democratic party and considered being John Kerry's vice president four years ago. The Democrats have every reason to be overconfident. But that, and whatever novel slanders the GOP electoral machine has in store for them, is the only thing they have to worry about, whoever their nominee may be.

Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at or through his personal Web site at

(c) 2008 News-Journal Corporation

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