Campaign 2008 — Are We Reliving 1968?
By Sarah Katherine Mergel, Bread and Circus contributing writer
The upcoming presidential election, perhaps more to the point the pervasiveness of the 2008 contest, started me thinking about past presidential elections. Everywhere I go, it seems someone is talking about the candidates and their chances for nomination. Maybe I’m overly sensitive because I live in the Washington, DC area, but I suspect not. As much as I agree with E.J. Dionne, who argued in Why Americans Hate Politics (1991) that Americans have tired of the false choices present by left and right, I cannot help but marvel at how much an election still over a year away has permeated our collective consciousness.[i] Dionne might be correct that we do not like politics, but can we escape it? Probably not, but we can take some time to put the election in historical perspective.
The 2008 and 1968 presidential elections seem remarkably similar for two reasons. First, an incumbent did not run in 1968 and cannot run in 2008. When Lyndon Johnson pulled out of the presidential race, it was unclear who would succeed him for the Democratic nomination. In the upcoming election, both parties must find an effective party leader. Second, foreign policy played a major role in 1968 and stands to play an equally important role in 2008. American involvement in Vietnam, as part of the larger Cold War struggle against communism, affected the outcome of the 1968 election. In fact, Melvin Small, a presidential historian, noted that the 1968 election was “was the foreign policy election of the twentieth century.”[ii] The present conflict in Iraq fits into the nation’s broader fight against terrorism and thus shares similar characteristics with Vietnam. The 2008 contest may not be the foreign policy election of the twenty-first century, but like 1968, international affairs will affect both parties as they move toward selecting a candidate.
For the Republicans, the 1968 presidential campaign started almost immediately after Barry Goldwater’s massive defeat in 1964 if not before. Lyndon Johnson trounced Goldwater, leaving Republicans at a loss because they had no apparent leader. Conservatives and liberals within the party fought to control the selection of a candidate in 1968. Richard Nixon considered returning to politics to seek the nomination in 1968. After his loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960, and an even less graceful loss in California’s gubernatorial election in 1962, Nixon needed to combat his image as a loser. Nixon worked hard to sell himself as the ideal candidate for 1968 during the Goldwater campaign and after. He faced challenges for the nomination from Charles Percy, George Romney, and Nelson Rockefeller on his left and Ronald Reagan on his right. Nixon, who after 1966 based his campaign almost exclusively on the Vietnam War and domestic disorder, edged out the other potential nominees. His carefully-crafted image as a centrist made him the only candidate able to speak to a majority of Republicans and even some Democrats. Vietnam became such an important issue for the GOP that George Romney’s comment about being brainwashed by American personnel while visiting Vietnam ended his chances to receive the nomination.
Vietnam also played a major role for the Democrats in 1968. As opposition to American involvement in the war increased after 1966, liberals and leftists called into question Lyndon Johnson’s ability to lead, but they had little hope of unseating the president. The popularity of Johnson’s Great Society programs made it unlikely that most Democrats would abandon him come election time, even if they did not like his foreign policy. Johnson had very little room to maneuver between the doves and the hawks on the war issue, making it difficult to find a solution that would help his reelection effort. If he failed to seek peace antiwar activists attacked, but if peace brought a communist takeover he would loose the support of most anticommunists. Eventually, after the Tet Offensive and a narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary (as the incumbent he should have done better), Johnson withdrew from the race to concentrate on the Vietnam situation.
Still, those opposed to the war remained unsatisfied for they did not want Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey, to take the nomination. Liberal Democrats favored Eugene McCarthy and while student activists tended to push for Robert Kennedy. McCarthy and Kennedy battled one another in the primaries but the results were anything but conclusive. Splitting the primaries, neither could go to the convention as the prevailing choice of the voters. Ultimately, the delegates nominated Humphrey and adopted a platform catering to President Johnson’s wishes. The vice president had the support of party regulars who made up the bulk of the convention’s delegates. Foreign policy, mostly Humphrey’s initial adherence to Johnson’s Vietnam policy, still rankled many liberals and leftists. The contentious Chicago convention—with its clashes between antiwar activists and the police, not to mention the dissension within the convention hall—made it difficult for the Democrats to mount a successful challenge to the Republicans.[iii]
Until the election, Vietnam continued to play a role in the campaign. Both parties promised peace, but for many voters Nixon’s proposals to end the war and win the peace seemed more appropriate, even though Nixon never specified how he planned to bring American troops home without abandoning South Vietnam. Johnson’s announcement of a bombing halt in October concerned Republican strategists who feared that peace in Vietnam would give Humphrey the boost he needed to win. However, the non-communist South balked at any settlement with the communist North. Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey and third party candidate George Wallace in November. Nixon likely would have won by a larger margin if Wallace had not provided southern segregationists with an alternative to Democratic and Republican candidates. In the end, Nixon benefited from the voter’s dissatisfaction with Johnson’s handling of the war and the resulting antiwar activism, as well as a fear Humphrey would be no different.
Similar to 1968, neither party has the ability to rely on an incumbent, nor do they have an heir apparent to rely on to head their ticket in 2008.[iv] Dick Cheney is not running, nor was it ever likely he would. The leading Republican candidates including John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney have to fight for support from an assorted body of conservatives and some moderates. Recent GOP debates show that the leaders have a long way to go before they convince conservatives of their right-wing credentials. The Democrats currently have a more diverse field of candidates (in part a legacy of the 1968 election) but, like the Republicans, they must fight for influence within their party. Hillary Clinton (always more liberal than her husband who pioneered the Third Way), Barack Obama, John Edwards, and the other contenders need to find a way to speak effectively for all Democrats.[v]
Moreover, foreign policy, namely the War in Iraq and the fight against terrorism, has already had an effect on the 2008 presidential election and will continue to do so for some time. Much of the first Democratic presidential debate was spent discussing the candidates’ position on Iraq, namely George W. Bush’s policy. The present administration seems unlikely to abandon its commitment to the Iraqi government, even in the face of threats to cut funding for the war. As long as Iraq stays in play, candidates—no matter their political persuasion—will be forced to deal with the war at some point in their campaigns. Socio-economic issues will likely stay in the background as they did in 1968.
As we look forward to 2008, perhaps one lesson we can take away from the 1968 election is that no matter how pressing one issue seems, we would be wise to take all issues into consideration. Nixon eventually did bring American involvement in Vietnam to an end (it only took four years). However, his domestic and economic policies surprised Americans more than anything else. Of course, it would have been hard to tell from his campaign statements that he would support wage and price controls, affirmative action, or a guaranteed family income. Another lesson we can learn from 1968 seems to be that the best politician does not always make the best president. Richard Nixon was a great politician, but his obsession with his political fortunes ultimately led to Watergate and his downfall. We need to be more cognizant of the substance of the message, not its delivery.
With the 2008 election still over a year away, much can happen for the candidates. Although I suspect that foreign policy, not economic or social conditions, will continue to dominate as they did in 1968. Front runners at this stage may find themselves spent by the time primary season heats up in early 2008, only time will tell. One thing seems certain, as with the 1968 election, the 2008 election will likely shape up to be a very interesting with a few twists and turns along the way.
Sarah Katherine Mergel, Ph.D., specializes in American political and intellectual history since the Civil War. Her primary area of research is the rise of modern conservatism and its effects on political developments, cultural trends, social issues, and international relations.
Images: (top) Richard M. Nixon campaign 1968. White House Photo Office, Oliver Atkins, photographer. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. (middle) Richard M. Nixon in motorcade during the 1968 Presidential campaign. White House Photo Office, Oliver Atkins, photographer. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. (lower middle) Medical evacuation during Vietnam War. Marines of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines, while under heavy firefight with NVAs within the DMZ on Operation Hickory III, are carrying one of their fellow Marines. July 29, 1967. Department of Defense photo, courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. (bottom) Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Gen. Creighton Abrams in a Cabinet Room meeting, March 27, 1968. Photo courtesy Lyndon Baines Johnson Library (Austin, TX).
[i] E.J. Dionne, Jr., Why Americans Hate Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
[ii] Melvin Small, “The Election of 1968,” Diplomatic History 28 (September 2004), 513-528. The 1968 election was not the only time that foreign policy played a role in a presidential election in the twentieth century, the 1916 election hinged in part on Woodrow Wilson’s claim that he kept the country out of the growing World War.
[iii] Robert Kennedy, of course, was assassinated after his victory in California. Had he lived, he would have been the stronger antiwar candidate at the convention but still would have come up short in needed delegates. Johnson’s control over the Democratic Party, coupled with his animosity toward Kennedy, meant that Kennedy was unlikely to receive the nomination. However, he might have been able to prevent the Democratic platform from being so heavily influenced by Johnson.
[iv] In 1988 and 2000, the incumbent did not run, but his heir apparent did. Both George H.W. Bush, in 1988, and Al Gore, in 2000, had the support of most of their party going into the convention. Humphrey, who was also a sitting vice president, received far more resistance from members of his own party, making him less of an heir apparent. Many supporters of McCarthy and Kennedy chose not to vote, rather than cast their vote for Humphrey.
[v] Joe Klein, The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton (New York: Broadway Books, 2002). Bill Clinton, as a founding member of the Democratic Leadership Council, positioned himself as a centrist. His “third way” was an effort to find middle ground between the conservatism and left-liberalism.