Just as President Lyndon Johnson, whom everyone expected to run for re-election, symbolized the Democratic establishment then, Hillary Clinton does now. While Johnson controlled the party apparatus (which in 1968 still chose most of the delegates), Clinton has locked up most of the Democratic donors. Both of them, too, have already lost a nomination battle to a younger, more attractive candidate: LBJ to JFK in 1960, and Clinton to Barack Obama in 2008. And both have serious vulnerabilities that pundits initially underestimated: the Vietnam War for Johnson, and the ongoing email scandal for Clinton.
This comparison of the email scandal to the Vietnam War may be the silliest thing I’ve read in quite some time, and in 2015 that’s saying a lot. We know for sure that 58,000+ Americans died in that conflict and there were between 700,000 and 1.3 million deaths total, both military and civilian. In contrast, 4 Americans died in the 2012 Benghazi attack and as far as we know nobody was killed by reading one of Hillary’s emails. The oddest thing about that passage is that its author, David Kaiser, is NOT a wingnut. He is, however, wrong, wrong, wrong.
LBJ had a firm grip on at least 90% of the Democratic apparatus at a time when it meant a lot. That’s why the 1968 nominee was his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey, not an anti-Johnson candidate. There’s no comparable organizational structure now: all the former FLOTUS, Senator, and Secretary of State has are endorsements. The days of the big city bosses and Southern Bourbon caudillos are long gone. Plus, LBJ was the sitting President who won in a landslide in 1964, as opposed to a primary season runner-up. Johnson could have bullied and forced his way to the nomination, Hillary cannot.
Kaiser goes on to find other analogues. Bernie Sanders is Eugene McCarthy. This one isn’t as quite as ludicrous: both were back bench Senators running to promote a cause important to them. McCarthy’s cause, however, was life and death: to end the slaughter in Vietnam and bring our troops home.
Joe Biden is Hubert Humphrey in Kaiserworld. As human beings it’s a pretty good one. Hubert was as warm, gregarious and occasionally as gaffe prone as Joey the Shark. I’ve made that analogy myself in the past. Both were distinguished liberals well-qualified to be President. Both men even had substantial blots on otherwise stellar progressive records: HHH and the Vietnam War, and Biden his advocacy and/or sponsorship of some of the terrible anti-crime bills passed in the 1980’s and ’90’s. (I’ll leave yet another discussion about whether Biden and other Democrats should be forgiven for voting for the Iraq War resolution for another day. Just remember: George McGovern, Mark Hatfield, and Frank Church were among those who voted for the Tonkin Gulf resolution in 1964. Only 2 members of Congress voted no.)
The fundamental difference between Biden and Humphrey is that the former might run against the front-runner whereas LBJ would have cut HHH’s nuts off if he’d even considered such a thing. Another enormous difference is that Biden is a powerful Veep along the lines of Hubert’s protege, Fritz Mondale whereas Johnson kept Humphrey’s testicles in a jar on the mantle if you catch my drift.
Finally, Kaiser compares Senator/Professor Warren to Robert Kennedy. Warren *is* deservedly popular on the Left of the party BUT doesn’t have the prestige of the brother of the martyred President. People at the time viewed him as a stand-in for JFK and there were millions of voters prepared to support the heir to “Camelot.” Additionally, RFK was mistrusted by some on the Left because of his days as a McCarthyite fellow traveler and all the temporizing he did on Civil Rights as Attorney General.
The image of “ruthless” Bobby is something that has been lost in the fog of history. It would have, however, helped him pry loose delegates from the big city bosses in 1968. Many of the bosses were Irish and devoted to the Kennedy family. Some, like Mayor Daley, were even closet doves because their blue-collar constituents were doing most of the fighting and dying in Southeast Asia.
It’s weird that someone who lived through the Vietnam period, Kaiser was born in 1947, would get so much so very wrong. The nascent 2015 Democratic primary season is nothing like the 1968 race in spite of a few superficial similarities. The Democratic Party was ripped to shreds by Vietnam in 1968 and went on to lose 5 of 6 Presidential elections. We’re at a different point in history right now: the existential threat to America is not the Vietnam War as a hot blooded surrogate for the Cold War, it’s the possibility of a Republican President moving a big bag of crazy into the White House. That gives Democrats incentive to unite behind an eventual nominee and take on the Republicans; something that did not happen in 1968. I somehow doubt that Bernie Sanders would go into a 37-year political pout like Eugene McCarthy who even endorsed Ronald Reagan in 1980.
That concludes this edition of Bad Historical Analogy Theatre.