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A Different Kind of Insurgent


Photo Credit: Lauren Burke, WDCPix and Library of Congress

On the heels of a decisive victory in South Carolina, Sen. Barack Obama heads into Super-duper Tuesday as a surprisingly strong challenger to the presumptive favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. With much of the party leadership against him, Obama seeks to accomplish what few Democrats have managed in the last half-century: transform an insurgent’s campaign, with strong appeal to young voters and to the affluent, educated elite of the Democratic Party into a successful bid for the White House.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

In a much-cited column in The Los Angeles Times earlier this year, Ron Brownstein linked Obama to other “wine-track” contenders –“brainy liberals with cool, detached personas and messages of political reform” like Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Jerry Brown in 1976, Gary Hart in 1984, Bill Bradley in 2000, and Howard Dean in 2004. Those insurgent campaigns lost the nomination to old-style machine candidates who had strong connections to union labor and party leadership. The rare exceptions who got the party’s nod–Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s, George McGovern in 1972– fared badly in the November elections.

But Obama’s candidacy could well veer off the wine track. He draws on different historical models and confronts a very different kind of nomination fight than his insurgent Democrat predecessors. As his South Carolina victory revealed, Obama has strong support from African-American voters normally cool to Democratic insurgents. The singular character of his candidacy, and the shifting U.S. political landscape, just might let Obama succeed where previous reform Democrats have foundered.

The wine track/beer track divide has animated Democratic Party politics for two generations. This enduring rift emerged in the mid-1950s, when leading Democrats tried to reposition the party and its liberal agenda amid the post-World War II economic boom. In a time of growing affluence, with millions of Americans departing city row houses for suburban ranch homes (by 1960, more Americans lived in suburbs than any other community), the class-based politics of the New Deal era no longer had resonance.

Working on the campaign of Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, prominent liberals like the historian-activist Arthur M. Schlesinger urged Democrats to develop a new agenda, one less focused on “quantity”– lunchbox issues affecting the standard of living for working Americans — and more on “quality”– lifestyle issues like support for the arts, environmental protection and respect for the cultures of minority groups. They also envisioned a different style of politics — one that muted the class rhetoric and the fierce partisanship of party stalwarts like Harry S. Truman in favor of disinterested, non-partisan championing of the general welfare.

The coming of age of the baby boom, and the turbulent politics of the 60s, made such values liberalism a potent political force. New Democrats often stressed governmental reform — efforts to eliminate corruption, partisanship and horse-trading from national politics. Whether voiced by McGovern, Dean or Obama, these promises energized idealistic young people bent on transforming the political process. The disinterested commitment to general welfare, technocratic appreciation for the complexities of modern life, and distrust of populist rhetoric also appealed to educated, white collar workers in the growing high-tech, medical and financial sectors.

But those campaigns generated little excitement among blue collar Democrats or minority voters. Backed by union labor and party leaders, Humphrey defeated McCarthy in 1968 (and would likely have staved off Robert F. Kennedy, if an assassin had not ended his campaign). Echoing a Wendy’s ad, the establishment candidate, former Vice President Walter F. Mondale derailed Gary Hart when he asked “Where’s the beef?” Bradley and Dean’s campaigns similarly failed to translate widespread admiration into concrete support at the polls.

But despite his cerebral style and his concern for process, Obama is no McGovern or Bradley. Unlike those earlier insurgents, Obama has had no trouble raising money and has won endorsements from influential Democrats, like Sen. John Kerry, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, South Carolina Sen. Tim Johnson and California Rep. George Miller

Indeed, rather than resembling earlier wine track insurgents, Obama’s campaign more closely hearkens back more to that ultimate Democratic Party brand: the Kennedys.

Equally at home with Harvard professors like John Kenneth Galbraith and street-smart Irish Pols like Tip O’Neill, John F. Kennedy forged a new type of Democratic politics. Because of his ethnic and religious background and his military service, Kennedy could bring cultural icons like Pablo Casals and Andre Malraux to the White House (and fill his administration with Harvard swells) without being tagged with the egghead label that had sunk Stevenson in the 1950s.

Kennedy’s daughter, Caroline Kennedy, wrote a piece in yesterday’s New York Times saying Obama was the candidate most able to inspire voters, especially young people, as her father had.

But perhaps even more than JFK, it may be his younger brother, Robert F. Kennedy, who provides the model for Obama’s current campaign. Bobby Kennedy ran an insurgent’s race, challenging the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson and his designated successor, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. Running against the party pros that still largely controlled the nominating process, RFK attracted wine track voters, already nostalgic for Camelot; in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, Kennedy quoted from his “favorite poet,” Aeschylus, and spoke the language of reform and political renewal that animates Obama’s campaign. Kennedy also appealed strongly to minority voters.

Of course, Obama lacks the residual appeal with blue-collar white urban ethnics that Bobby Kennedy, being a Kennedy and an Irish Catholic, could draw on. But like RFK, Obama has assembled an insurgent’s campaign, strong among educated, affluent Democrats, energizing young voters, and simultaneously, exerting powerful appeal among African-American Democrats. That’s a formidable coalition, and one that no previous insurgent Democrat could manage. From McCarthy to Dean, minority voters have found earlier reformers cold.

Obama has something else going for him: the shifting terrain of the electoral landscape. In 1968, Democrats held just 15 primaries that selected a minority of the delegates. Bobby Kennedy may have out-dueled McCarthy 46 to 42 percent in the climactic California primary, but Humphrey, the leader in the delegate count, did not even have to contest the race. In the industrial North and Midwest, party professionals with strong ties to union labor controlled the nominating process. In the South and West, favorite son candidates dominated their states’ delegates, trading them for political favors and influence in the next administration. The excitement that insurgents stoked among rank-and-file Democrats did not matter.

In 2008, more than 40 states will hold primaries, awarding the overwhelming majority of the delegates. At the same time, blue-collar whites no longer form the dominant faction they long represented in Democratic Party politics. The beer track has been slowly drying up.

Obama still faces a tough battle for the nomination. But with his unique appeal and the changing layout of the primary battlefield, he may succeed where previous insurgent Democrats have faltered.

Bruce J. Schulman is professor of history at Boston University and the author of “The Seventies.”

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