Is It Almost 1972, Again?

In March 1974, The Atlantic published a lengthy essay by David Broder who was then at the height of his reportorial powers. The topic was the status of the Democratic Party and its prospects for success in the upcoming midterms and particularly the 1976 election. At the time this piece was published, Nixon was still president but he was so mortally wounded that a Ford presidency was treated as a given. As it turned out, Nixon wouldn’t resign for another five months.

It’s somewhat interesting to see how Broder’s projections turned out, and they weren’t too bad. He only briefly mentioned Jimmy Carter, but he did so to point out that he (along with Govs. Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and Reubin Askew of Florida) was a more promising prospect than any of the senators (Scoop Jackson, Muskie, McGovern, Humphrey, Walter F. Mondale, Lloyd Bentsen, and Birch Bayh) whose names were bandied about as potential nominees.

Far more interesting, however, is Broder’s deep analysis of what lay behind the Democrats’ defeats in 1968 and 1972, and how they had reacted and organized in the aftermath of McGovern’s epic defeat.

Before I go further, I need to contextualize this a little bit. The reason I am looking at the history of the Democratic Party in this time period is because I think the Republicans are in a similar situation right now. To be more precise, though, today for the Republicans is a lot like December 1971 for the Democrats. Things don’t mesh precisely here, but bear with me.

In December 1971, the Democrats had lost a devastating election three years earlier and were on the cusp of getting wiped out in an electoral drubbing of historic proportions. Their great hope was Senator Ed Muskie of Maine who had lined up the establishment’s support.

Now, I am going to ask you to look for contemporary parallels in the following excerpt from Broder’s analysis of what went wrong at the Democratic National Convention of 1972. Here Broder is explaining both why McGovern got to the convention in the strongest position and why his opponents were unable to derail him.

But the key to the 1972 convention result lay, not in rules manipulations, but in two independent factors, as peculiar in their way as the accidents that befell Kennedy and McCarthy in 1968.

One was the collapse of Edmund Muskie, the front-runner for the nomination and the consequent derailment of the vehicle on which most of the party regulars and elected officials had expected to ride to Miami Beach. No one in modern political history has dissipated as many assets as rapidly as did Muskie in the winter and spring of 1972.

The other key factor was the inability of George Meany to pick a candidate to back in the early going. Facing a divided AFL-CIO executive board, Meany declined to choose among Muskie, Humphrey, and Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson. Not until the California primary, when it was too late, did the AFL-CIO come in full force behind Humphrey, and it nearly turned the tide.

Even with the handicaps of Muskie’s collapse and labor’s indecision, the “regulars” very nearly triumphed. The key vote of the convention, on the California credentials challenge, was decided by only 173 votes–hardly evidence that the losers had been excluded.

Now, substitute the name Jeb Bush for Ed Muskie and substitute the Republican Party’s establishment (elected officials and financiers) for George Meany and “the regulars.”

In this scenario, George McGovern would be replaced by Ted Cruz or Donald Trump or maybe even Ben Carson. I know that’s not a kind comparison to make because McGovern was a better man and a better candidate than these Republican “irregulars.” But the comparison still works because we’re looking at rifts between establishment candidates and candidates powered by party activists and populist anti-establishment dissatisfaction.

In 1971-72, the Democratic establishment’s great hope was Ed Muskie. He was “the vehicle on which most of the party regulars and elected officials had expected to ride to” the national convention. Yet, he rapidly dissipated all his assets in a way that looked all but unprecedented.

Does that not almost perfectly describe Jeb Bush’s campaign so far?

Now, George Meany was the most powerful labor leader in the country back in 1971-72, and he may not have committed himself early enough to stop McGovern, but he was utterly opposed to McGovern from start to finish.

In Hunter S. Thompson’s famous Fear & Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 he fantasizes about Meany’s reaction to McGovern wrapping up the nomination at the Miami convention with his successful defense of his California primary delegates:

George Meany, the 77-year-old quarterback of the “Stop McGovern Movement,” is said to be suffering from brain bubbles at this stage of the game. Totally paralyzed. His henchmen have kept him in seclusion ever since he arrived in Florida five days ago, with a bad case of The Fear. He came down from AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington by train, but had to be taken off somewhere near Fort Lauderdale and rushed to a plush motel where his condition deteriorated rapidly over the weekend, and finally climaxed on Monday night when he suffered a terrible stroke while watching the Democratic Convention on TV.

The story is still shrouded in mystery, despite the best efforts of the 5,000 ranking journalists who came here to catch Meany’s last act, but according to a wealthy labor boss who said he was there when it happened – the old man went all to pieces when his creature, Hubert Humphrey, lost the crucial “California challenge.”

He raged incoherently at the Tube for eight minutes without drawing a breath, then suddenly his face turned beet red and his head swelled up to twice its normal size. Seconds later – while his henchmen looked on in mute horror – Meany swallowed his tongue, rolled out of his chair like a log, and crawled through a plate glass window.

This humorous portrait was funny because it contained so much truth. There is no modern day Republican equivalent to a king-maker like George Meany, but I think Ted Cruz’s Republican colleagues in the Senate would have about the same reaction to seeing Cruz crowned in Cleveland next year. As for a potential Donald Trump coronation, the National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Ward Baker has a plan for that. It’s a little more level-headed than raging incoherently at the television but it’s still completely informed by “The Fear.”

Baker’s memo, titled “Observations on Donald Trump and 2016,” amounts to a clear-eyed approach to the Trump challenge, to which many Republican elites have responded with only hand-wringing and the vague hope that somehow, someday it will disappear…

…He writes that it is prudent for Senate candidates to craft their own political brands distinct from Trump’s and to distance themselves by quickly condemning his more controversial comments, such as “wacky things about women.” He cautions candidates against “piling on” Trump, however, warning that Republicans up and down the ballot would suffer if the GOP vote was divided or depressed.

In other words, this is advice for surviving the Apocalypse. Prudence and planning dictates that this kind of memo be produced, but if you actually have to utilize its advice you’ve entered Dante’s Inferno and pretty much all hope is already lost.

And the loss of hope is what many establishment Republicans are struggling with. A certain sense of dread and fatalism is setting in and it’s getting to the point that analysts like Charlie Cook are giving pep talks to keep morale from collapsing completely.

Thinking about the 2016 Republican presidential nomination has generally boiled down to two competing views. The first is that Trump and/or Carson, the consummate political outsiders, will remain at the top of the GOP field, with one or the other ending up the nominee; the prospect makes some Republican uneasy and drives other into a near-clinical depression. The second view: While we certainly don’t know who the GOP nominee will be, we can feel reasonably assured that it won’t be one of those two. Adherents of this view see today’s Republican Party as behaving crazily but not actually insane. Things aren’t ever quite this simple, but in my view, this dichotomy is close enough.

Longtime readers of this column can guess I’m of the latter view, that conservatives serial infatuations four years ago with then-Rep. Michele Bachmann and pizza magnate Herman Cain, among others, foreshadowed this year’s unorthodox behavior. In 2012, in the end, Republican behaved normally and nominated a highly conventional Mitt Romney.

This reassurance would be a lot more reassuring to the Republican establishment if Cook was willing to bet the house that Ted Cruz won’t be the nominee, either. But that’s not something he’s willing to say. Quite the opposite, actually:

It’s my belief that these mad-as-hell conservatives and populists will eventually migrate to a more plausible alternative, very likely Sen. Ted Cruz, while the conventional Republicans who aren’t so alienated will coalesce behind a more traditional candidate. The conventional wisdom, which I share, is that this will most likely wind up being Sen. Marco Rubio.

Cook won’t come right and say it, but his hope is that Rubio would prevail against Cruz. Still, he’s not ready to predict an outcome beyond who will be the last two candidates standing.

Let’s remember that there were also two men standing at the end in 1972.

The outsider won.

Then the outsider lost 49 out of 50 states.

The lopsided outcome wasn’t that easy to see coming. After all, in the last election, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey had both received 31 million votes and 43% of the vote. What was different in 1972 was that “the new left” wasn’t being gassed in the streets outside the convention but were instead running the show on the inside. And it was the traditional party brokers, not the McCarthy/Kennedy acolytes, who were fighting the nomination down to the last second.

In other words, the party had become dangerously split and the party establishment not only had lost control of the process, they couldn’t embrace the candidate with a straight face.

It might be annoying to see McGovernites compared to Tea Partiers and Trumpistas, but the similarities are more important than the differences. What had been a deadlocked nation in 1968 became a Nixonian landslide in 1972, in large part because the Democratic establishment couldn’t take their own nominee seriously.

But this is only half the story.

So far, I’ve been focused primarily on how the Democratic Party establishment reacted to McGovern, but to get a full parallel to today we also have to look at how the McGovernites felt about the party establishment. I think it’s fair to say that “the new left” was utterly unimpressed with the congressional leadership of the party. The war in Vietnam was the primary source of discontent, but DC was still filled with reluctant desegregationist Democrats. Capitol Hill was still filled with ancient representatives who were far behind the times on women’s rights and environmentalism and other drivers of the progressive thought of the time. The hordes of activists surrounding the McGovern campaign were forward thinking and the party leadership was standing in their way.

By March of 1974, the disillusionment with Washington would be near-universal as the details of Watergate and CIA illegality came to light. But in the lead-up to the 1972 election, it was mainly discontent on the left that was driving McGovern forward and sweeping aside supposedly solid candidates like Muskie, Scoop Jackson, and Hubert Humphrey.

This is very similar to how present-day Republican activists feel about the leadership of their party in Washington and in the states. They have already cashiered Speaker of the House John Bohener and his deputy House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. They have already sunk the campaigns of Rick Perry, Bobby Jindal, and Scott Walker. Candidates who would be acceptable to the establishment like Govs. John Kasich and Chris Christie are struggling to get to 5% in the polls. And they seem to be rejecting Jeb Bush like week-old dog food.

The Democratic Party of the 1960’s delivered Vietnam and all its discontents. The Republican Party of the 2000’s and 2010’s delivered the Great Recession, the bailout, and a thousand broken promises. Both parties were so discredited with their own core supporters that they invited a grassroots insurrection.

It may not matter that one group of insurrectionists was on the right track and the other is, as Charlie Cook put it, “behaving crazily.” For our purposes, what might matter is what these similarities portend.

As I wrap up this first segment of my study of our political geology, I want to reiterate something I said in my introductory piece.

The two parties have been locked in a stable pattern for a while now and the pattern can certainly persist into the future. But, every once in a while there is a slip along the dividing line and one party leaps ahead and gains a decisive advantage. This happened in 1972, for example. President Nixon certainly didn’t foresee how decisively he’d win that election. If he had, he wouldn’t have broken so many laws and engaged in so many dirty tricks. Yet, when you look back at 1972 with the benefit of hindsight, all the signs were there that the Democrats were approaching a complete wipeout.

I haven’t touched on all the signs I’m seeing of a complete Republican wipeout. Not even close.

What I hope I’ve successfully done with this article is to get you to see what it might mean that it can fairly be said that “no one [since Muskie] in modern political history has dissipated as many assets as rapidly” as Jeb Bush. I hope you can see what it might mean that the traditional Republican kingmakers cannot settle on a champion to go up against the insurgent campaigns. I hope you can see what it might mean that the base of the party is so incredibly disenchanted with the party leadership while, simultaneously, the party leadership is panicking about the prospect of having to defend a nominee they can’t take seriously.

I will leave you with a teaser on the next segment. The following excerpt from David Broder’s March 1974 analysis explains why the Democrats who had controlled Congress for forty almost uninterrupted years by that point might have a wee bit of a problem exploiting the populist rage in the aftermath of Watergate. This would be especially true if they tried to run a senator for president in 1976.

Republican voter identification is down since the 1972 election, which is not surprising. But the percentage of voters willing to call themselves Democrats is also lower than it was at the time of the McGovern debacle. Congressional dominance of the party inhibits the Democrats from exploiting what is clearly the strongest emotion in the public today–a disgust with the way in which Washington officials have abused the responsibilities of leadership. The obvious Democratic battle cry for 1976 is the classic, “Throw the rascals out!” The only difficulty is that so many of the rascals turn out to be none other than the very congressional Democrats who now hold the party in thrall.

Again, this is a warning for Sens. Rubio and Cruz. As Pogo the Possum said, “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US.”

In the end, the Democrats didn’t pick a senator in 1976. They picked the governor of Georgia.

And they won.

But we’re not approaching 1976, yet.

We’re still approaching 1972.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.