Editor's note: A version of this column appeared originally on THE DAILY BEAST.
Optimistic Republicans like to view the upcoming presidential race as an echo of the epic battle of 1980 (when a triumphant Ronald Reagan thrashed the hapless Jimmy Carter). But they may more accurately anticipate unfolding events by recalling the fateful campaign of 1968 (when the Democratic Party collapsed into warring factions and the nation elected Richard Nixon, despite his manifold flaws as a candidate).
The ’68 model also offers a potential solution to one of the many mysteries swirling around the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations: placing the angry, inchoate gatherings in a meaningful historical context and answering key questions about their long-term political impact.
For those of us old enough to remember the last tragic years of Lyndon Johnson’s administration, the country’s mood offers eerie similarities. Then, as now, overwhelming majorities of Americans agreed that things had gone terribly, incomprehensibly wrong for the most powerful nation on earth, and they demonstrated their displeasure with marches, sit-ins, student strikes, and (in the case of the ’60s) destructive and violent inner-city riots. Confident Republicans naturally blamed the increasingly unpopular Johnson for the sour state of affairs, while his erstwhile Democratic allies quickly forgot about his once-heralded legislative triumphs in their worries over a seemingly endless war and frightening domestic unrest. In Johnson’s case, his historic success in passing long-stalled items on the Democratic agenda (Medicare, major civil-rights bills) looked increasingly irrelevant in the midst of ongoing national agony, just as Obama’s achievements in passing health-care reform and financial regulation have done nothing to alleviate fears of national decline and looming disaster.