Clinton Running Like Old Guard Humphrey
Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/hillaryhumph.jpgFormer Sen. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) (ssa.gov and WDCpix)
As Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) girds for the March 4 Ohio and Texas primaries — races that could mark her last stand in the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination — her candidacy represents a surprising turnaround. As an operative in George S. McGovern’s 1972 insurgent campaign, Clinton embodied the reform agenda that McGovern championed: an effort to strip union and elected officials of their influence in the Democratic Party; to open the presidential selection process to previously underrepresented groups, and to replace the nuts-and-bolts deal-making and backroom horse-trading of party bosses with a “New Politics” based on visionary commitments to transform the fundamental rules of public life.
Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin
A generation later, McGovern still admires — and recently endorsed — the activist who staffed his campaign. But oddly, Clinton seems to have morphed into 21st-century version of the Old Guard that opposed McGovern. The ABM — “Anyone But McGovern” — campaign failed in 1972. It could not resist a generational shift in the Democratic Party and a sea-change in the way that national politics was conducted, even though McGovern’s opponents nearly succeeded with a last-ditch effort to change the delegate selection rules after the fact.
Clinton now seems to resemble no one so much as Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, the ex-vice president and honored Democratic warhorse who opposed McGovern. She has become the candidate of the unions and major party officials. A long-time champion of liberal causes, Humphrey had once been the Democrat’s young Turk whose passionate speech in favor of civil rights threw the 1948 convention into an uproar. He would eventually steer the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the Senate. But by 1972, the “happy warrior” represented the party establishment that youthful activists like HillaryRodham Clinton were determined to push aside.
Will Clinton also pursue a desperate strategy to stop her opponent? Will she become victim of the same generational politics she once championed?
In Texas and especially Ohio, Clinton has embraced Humphrey’s 1972 strategy. Like her predecessor, Clinton derides her opponent’s fancy rhetoric and dismisses his plans to broaden the electorate, while emphasizing her long experience in government, her mastery of policy details and the concrete aid her programs would offer working Americans. Just as party officials like Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and union leaders likeAFL-CIO President George Meany rallied to Humphrey’s standard in a last-ditch effort to derail McGovern, so the party’s current old guard is campaigning for Clinton. Former House Majority Leader Richard A.Gephardt (D-Mo.) and International Assn. of Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger are stumping for Clinton in Ohio, mocking Sen. Barack Obama’s pledges to change the tone of national politics. “Voters are not into highfalutin rhetoric,” Gephardt warned. “They’re into real solutions to real problems.”
If the contest remains close, the Clinton campaign has signaled a willingness to fight for the seating of delegates from Michigan and Florida — two states that the Democratic National Committee had stripped of their votes at the party’s nominating convention for violating rules about when to schedule their primary elections.Obama did not contest those states.
With such a move, Clinton would steal a page from Humphrey’s 1972 playbook. Even though McGovern’s victory in the winner-take-all California primary guaranteed his nomination, Humphrey tried to block it by getting the party to change the rules after the fact and allocate California’s delegates proportionally according to the percentage of the vote each candidate had tallied.
Will Clinton also pursue a desperate strategy to stop her opponent?
That gambit failed, as did the effort of Humphrey and his party and labor allies to forestall the changing of the guard in Democratic Party counsels. Though McGovern lost badly in the general election, and the party took steps — like the creation ofsuperdelegates — to rein in future insurgent campaigns, the cat was already out of the bag. A host of young McGovernites–Bill and Hillary Clinton, Gary Hart, John Podesta, Gene Sperling, Bob Shrum –would become the party’s new face. They represented a Democratic base increasingly populated by relatively affluent, issue-oriented activists rather than union labor and machine politicians; a party far more skeptical of U.S. military power than Cold War Democrats like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Humphrey had been.
The McGovern team — Hillary Clinton among them — also mastered a new style of politics. It took advantage of a nominating process that placed new importance on winning favorable press coverage and mobilizing voters in a vastly expanded set of primaries, instead of relying on endorsements from elected officials and get-out-the-vote efforts by union leaders. Theirs was a largely symbolic campaign. LikeObama’s , it was grounded in McGovern’s opposition to a continuing foreign war, to the enthusiasm of young Americans voting for the first time and especially, to a commitment to restore honor and decency to American politics.
“Today,” McGovern declared in 1972, “our citizens no longer feel that they can shape their own lives in concert with their fellow citizens. Beyond that is the loss of confidence in the truthfulness and common sense of our leaders.” His campaign offered change — and hope.
During the Clinton presidency of the 1990s, the Democrats who cut their political teeth on McGovern’s 1972 campaign understood the potency of such an approach. They never forgot the concrete policies, particularly in times of economic distress, but they understood the powerful forces that had made old-style bread-and-butter politics obsolete; that a new generation of voters sought a different kind of nourishment from public life. They drove out politicians like Humphrey–in a final indignity, at the 1980 Democratic convention, President Jimmy Carter had mistakenly referred to the recently deceased former party champion as “Hubert Horatio Hornblower.” In doing so, they ushered in the era of the Clintons.
Now, Hillary Clinton appears to be playing the Humphrey role in this year’s presidential campaign. Much is still to be decided, but she may well be headed for a similar fate.
Bruce J. Schulman is professor of history at Boston University and the author of “The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society and Politics” and “Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism.”