For a while, I've been planning to intermittently post my thoughts on the 2008 Democratic presidential candidates and the approaching campaign--so here are my initial ruminations. I do realize it's all just pure speculation at this point, but there are some trends to start looking for. And as both a longtime political junkie and a historian, I might be able to add some insights.
Today I want deal with "the Myth" (coming from Washington pundits and the right-wing media) that says Democrats always destroy their own front-runners. The myth suggests that Democratic activists can be counted on to subvert the party's electoral chances by sabotaging the front-runner and nominating some wild and crazy liberal. Where did this myth originate and is it at all relevant for 2008?
Edmund Sixtus Muskie--remember him? Younger readers of Books and Bait probably have no idea who he was. Let me fill you in--and briefly explain why Muskie, for the past 35 years, has served as the poster-boy for the aforementioned myth. In 1968, Muskie (representing Maine in the U.S. senate), ran for Vice-President on the Democratic national ticket headed by sitting Vice-President Hubert H. Humphrey. The Humphrey-Muskie team was narrowly defeated by the Republican ticket of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew (both future criminals by the way). But Muskie emerged as a fresh face who had campaign reasonably well--he was anointed the strong front-runner for 1972.
Trouble was, Muskie was actually a very poor candidate: boring, insipid, and not at all in-step with the changing Democratic party. He was the establishment candidate--an organizational man in a party brimming with diversity. In fact, by 1972, both liberals and moderates in the party were in no mood for another pro-war, traditional standard bearer. Muskie spent 4 years as the front-runner, gained all the necessary endorsements and raised millions. But he soon went down to a quick and crushing defeat in the early primaries. The soul of the party never accepted Muskie and they made it clear at the ballot box by selected George McGovern as their candidate.
This stunned the establishment (Mayor Daley and other party leaders), but they were probably on their way out anyway. This is where the myth started. The fact that McGovern was thrashed in November just added fuel to the legend. Now, every time a Democratic front-runner has trouble, the press resurrects old Ed Muskie and talks about how prevalent this is in the Democratic Party--how the silly activists on the left dominate the primaries and defeat the moderate/electable candidates by nominating these "McGovernites."
Yes, other Democratic front-runners have had some problems: Mondale had to deal with Gary Hart in 1984, and Howard Dean self-destructed in 2004--but no one crashed and burned like Muskie. Dean was still an semi-insurgent candidate, and his fall was is no way comparable to the Muskie self-destruction.
For those of you who are still with me--there is a reason I am bringing this up. Senator Hillary Clinton of New York is currently in much the same position as Muskie was in 1971-72:
-a strong front-runner
-lots of money
-support of many party leaders
-has been ahead in all the polls since 2004
Expect it folks--the pundits (especially the right-wingers) will soon revive the Ed Muskie tale and compare his fate with what they believe will befall Senator Clinton next year.
Well, we need to at least look at it--is it possible? Are there similarities and patterns--might we see a replay of 1972?
I will deal with this more in the next post on this topic. More to come on Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Muskie, McGovern and others.
By the way, for those of you who, like me, were zealous McGovern supporters (yes, I am that old), a great film/documentary was released last year on the 1972 McGovern campaign. If you get a chance, please rent One Bright Shining Moment. I, for one, remain extremely proud of the vote I cast in that election.