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.
Amid the gloom in 1967, a small cadre of Democratic upstarts with limited experience in national politics resolved to offer a primary challenge to LBJ’s formidable reelection campaign. The “Dump Johnson” movement had scant hope of electoral success but meant to raise high-profile demands for dramatic change while offering a constructive outlet for spreading public disgust. Itinerant activist and sometime college administrator Allard K. Lowenstein (my personal friend and mentor at the time) began searching for a plausible candidate to challenge the incumbent president. Robert Kennedy, the senator from New York and former attorney general, represented the obvious first choice, but RFK unequivocally refused to make the race. Lowenstein and his allies then solicited a range of other possibilities, including Sens. George McGovern and Frank Church, California Rep. Don Edwards, and Gen. James Gavin, but they all declined. Finally, in late October 1967, an obscure junior senator from Minnesota, Eugene McCarthy, agreed to launch a quixotic nomination fight against the powerful president of his own party and promised to focus that campaign on spirited (but largely unfocused) disagreement with Johnson’s handling of the Vietnam War.
Contrary to popular myth, McCarthy failed to win the New Hampshire primary, but his unexpected 42 percent showing triggered Bobby Kennedy’s belated entry into the race and brought about LBJ’s withdrawal two weeks later. RFK’s assassination in June (which I witnessed as a Kennedy campaign volunteer) meant that Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s vice president, became the nominee of a hopelessly divided party—and faced violent protests at that summer’s Democratic convention in Chicago. In November, third-party candidate George Wallace appealed to “white backlash” against the Black Power movement and got 13.5 percent of the popular vote, drawing heavily from blue-collar Democrats. Nixon won the election despite carrying only 43.4 percent of all voters and inspiring scant enthusiasm among movement conservatives who had powered Barry Goldwater’s campaign four years earlier.
Could history repeat itself in 2012, with an unexpected primary challenge to Barack Obama dividing the Democratic Party and leading to GOP victory by default?
On the one hand, any rival to the sitting president would lack a single, transcendent issue such as Vietnam, but the economic conditions in 2012 are incalculably worse than in 1968. Humphrey and the Democrats lost 43 years ago despite an impressive full-employment economy, with a jobless rate that stood at an admirable 3.4 percent on Election Day—compared with 9.1 percent today, and predictions by the administration’s own economists that the rate will be at least 8 percent through the end of 2012.
Moreover, the young people who’ve been drawn to the Occupy Wall Street carnivals across the country could easily provide the same sort of frenzied volunteer power that drove the McCarthy and Kennedy challenges to LBJ. In more than a half-dozen interviews on my radio show, these demonstrators expressed no enthusiasm whatever for Obama and his feckless leadership, specifically decrying his undeniable ties to the financial establishment—with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, chiefs of staff Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley, budget directors Peter Orszag and Jacob Lew, and other key aides all boasting impeccable Wall Street connections.
But if some current-day conspirators meant to replicate Al Lowenstein’s playbook and organize a last-minute “Dump Obama” movement, which candidates could they recruit?
The obvious first choice, reflecting Lowenstein’s initial preference for Bobby Kennedy, involves another carpetbagger candidate who came to New York state and, as it happens, captured RFK’s old seat. Hillary Clinton, like RFK, bears strong family connections to a popular ex-president, boasts experience both in a prominent cabinet position and on Capitol Hill, and, most important, shares a history of contentious rivalry with the current incumbent. She also would surely turn down any chance to challenge Obama in 2012: had she meant to make a race, she would have resigned as secretary of state several months ago.
This leaves a range of other possibilities for the disappointed and increasingly despairing left: perennial candidate Dennis Kucinich, former congressman Alan Grayson of Florida, former senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, and media figures like Michael Moore, Keith Olbermann, Alec Baldwin, and Ed Schultz (Roseanne Barr has already announced her candidacy, without soaring support).
Young people drawn to the Occupy Wall Street carnivals could provide the same volunteer power that drove the McCarthy and Kennedy challenges to LBJ.
Beyond such oddly assorted long shots, one potential challenger counts as Barack Obama’s worst nightmare and, according to my off-the-record conversations with some left-of-center activists and theorists, is currently considering making history with a radical presidential run as either a Democrat or an independent.
Of course, to challenge an incumbent president of your own party, it helps if you’re at least a little bit insane. By this standard, Gene McCarthy probably qualified. And Al Gore—yes, Al Gore—certainly does.
The former vice president has generally shunned the spotlight since his divorce and the lurid, unproven allegations about erotic massage in a Portland hotel room. Nevertheless, a new Gore crusade would be easy to imagine: with self-righteous indignation over Obama’s inattention to global climate change, his failure to bring a definitive conclusion to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his willingness to bail out major banks while offering only timid versions of redistributive reforms.
Imagine a group of left-leaning intellectuals and activists approaching Gore with a plea to make the race for the sake of channeling the outrage of Occupy Wall Street toward sweeping change within the political process. If Obama faced any such challenge—particularly from a well-known and formidable figure like Gore—it would be even more difficult for him to swerve toward the center in order to sway decisive independents.
Jimmy Carter faced some of the same problems after turning aside Teddy Kennedy’s primary challenge, when he faced malaise in his bid for reelection—but for 2012, the GOP can’t count on finding another Reagan waiting in the wings. Nevertheless, the desolate, increasingly toxic American atmosphere ought to encourage Republicans to give up their obsession with 1980 and consider partying like ’68—when even the charismatically challenged Nixon carried 32 states and 301 electoral votes.