With the Democratic presidential candidates battling it out for a chance to be creamed by George W. Bush, reading the newspapers these days feels very much like 1972. The Democrats are moving left, the incumbent president is popular, and it looks like the Democrats may be out of power for decades. After 1972, the Democrats were bailed out by Watergate. This time, they'll need an act of God.
The parallels between 1972 and 2003 for the Democrats are striking. Even their candidates look the same.
Immediately following the 1968 election, the strongest Democrat was Teddy Kennedy. Then, Kennedy drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island, drowning Mary Jo Kopechne. This juicy scandal forced Kennedy to abandon his presidential ambitions, opening the door for a slew of candidates to jump into the nomination fray.
Immediately after the 2000 election, Al Gore seemed like the sure bet for 2004. But then the word came down from on high: Gore had to go. And go he did, announcing his intention to drop out of the presidential race and opening the door for a slew of lesser-known candidates.
Leading up to the 1972 Democratic primaries, 1968 vice presidential candidate Edmund Muskie of Maine looked like the new Democratic front-runner. Standing tall at 6 foot 4, with craggy good looks, the former U.S. Navy lieutenant cultivated an image as a strong, stoic politician. Political analysts called him "Lincolnesque."
Leading up to the 2004 Democratic primaries, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has taken the early lead in public opinion polls. Tall and handsome, Kerry is perceived as the most solid Democratic candidate.
Muskie's main challenger for the 1972 nomination was Sen. George McGovern. McGovern separated himself from the other Democratic candidates with his strongly antiwar stance. If Muskie made any blunder, McGovern would seize control of the Democratic nomination.
Kerry's main challenger for the 2004 nomination is Howard Dean. Dean has made a name for himself among Democratic loyalists by coming out against the war in Iraq. His statements on defense policy have endeared him to the extremists in the party. If Kerry makes any missteps, Dean will win the nomination.
In 1972, Henry "Scoop" Jackson was the conscience of the Democratic Party. Solid on defense but colorless, Jackson was particularly strong on Israel and Jewish issues. Jackson would have been a decent presidential candidate, but the party activists didn't want anyone as mainstream as Jackson.
Sen. Joe Lieberman is doing his best Scoop Jackson imitation in 2003. Using his status as a semi-observant Jew to pose as the moral conscience of the Democratic Party, Lieberman has challenged Kerry for the Democratic moderates. Unfortunately for him, the Democratic activists see him as "Bush-lite" and don't want a moderate going up against George W.
Hubert Humphrey was the Democratic Party's tried-and-true battle-scarred warrior in 1972. Likeable but somewhat uncharismatic, the 1968 Democratic presidential nominee posed as the voice of moderation in the 1972 field of candidates.
Richard Gephardt plays the same part for today's Democrats. As a presidential candidate in 1988, Gephardt won three primaries, but he doesn't have enough name recognition or charisma to take on the other Democratic candidates.
The dark horse in the 1972 Democratic nomination race was George Wallace. The former Alabama governor, famous for blocking the University of Alabama, Montgomery schoolhouse door to prevent federal desegregation, set the Democrats on edge; Edmund Muskie called him a "demagogue of the worst kind." A Wallace nomination would have been the Democrats' worst nightmare.
The dark horse in 2003 is Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton, like Wallace in 1972, is a racial demagogue. Famous for his part in inciting riots over Tawana Brawley in 1987 and in Crown Heights in 1991, Sharpton can single-handedly splinter the Democratic black constituency. A couple of Sharpton primary victories could hurt the Democrats more than they would prefer to imagine.
Just as in 1972, today's Democratic Party is a party in flux. But unlike 1972, there's no Watergate on the horizon. George W. Bush could hardly be mistaken for Richard Nixon. Nixon, a moderate, regulated wages and prices, pursued a soft-line foreign policy of detente and pulled out of Vietnam. Most of all, Nixon was paranoid about his political opponents.
George W. Bush, on the other hand, is a committed conservative and is fearless in staring down his political opponents. If Bush had been president in 1972, Republicans would have enjoyed two decades of uninterrupted presidential power. With the Democrats partying like it's 1972, today's Republicans have an opportunity to begin a new era of conservative dominance.