Hillary Clinton has
decided that she will suspend her campaign and endorse Barack Obama on Friday,
if news reports are to be believed. The story put forth by various of her
surrogates yesterday afternoon was that she needed a little time to caucus with
her staff and advisers, to figure out how best to redirect the passion of her
supporters into support for the nominee. No doubt, the cascade of congressional
Democrats who called her and told her that they needed her to concede and send
her support to Obama made that decision more pressing, but I’m inclined to take
her at her word that it was coming soon anyway.
The pressure on Clinton to concede quickly after the last primary has been overdone, but the concern among the Democratic rank and file (myself included) about the entire course of Senator Clinton’s campaign after it became clear that her course to the nomination was at best extremely tenuous was that her campaign (and particularly how it was conducted) would fatally damage the nominee. Democrats have seen this before, and when those inclined to minimize the impact of such bloodletting cite the examples of the Ford-Reagan and Kennedy-Carter primary fights as previous examples of protracted battles, they do nothing to ease those concerns, since the eventual winner of each of those fights was so damaged that they got hammered in the general election that followed.
That concern isn’t sexist, though there has certainly been some sexism to be seen (along with nods to racism) in the coverage of the campaign. In a very real sense, it’s the respect for and perception of Hillary Clinton as a consummate political pro that has driven much of the “what the hell is she about?” chat around her campaign’s pressing on in the face of impossibly long odds of success. She must know that this can be damaging to Obama, goes the reasoning, so why would she do it if it were so unlikely to make her the nominee? It’s hard not to attribute some ulterior motive to actions that seem to have no positive outcome in this election for any Democrat. Hence, speculation about Clinton laying groundwork for a run in 2012 and sinking Obama’s candidacy to make such a run possible.
A few weeks ago, there was a flurry of comparisons between Obama’s candidacy and that of George McGovern in 1972. Much was made of the demographic similarity between the two candidates’ supporters, and of the similarity of appeal between critical premises of the two, namely, that of removing us from a senseless and bloody war. There were a variety of reasons why that comparison was flawed (chief among them being the demographic changes that have happened in the intervening 36 years), but there are a couple of comparisons that I think bear directly on the extended campaign Clinton waged. They got virtually no play (that I saw), and deserve more.
First, a short history. McGovern’s first campaign in 1968 was an insurgency in the Democratic party, a late entry after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination and a direct challenge to Hubert Humphrey’s association with that war as LBJ’s vice president. He split the anti-war vote with Eugene McCarthy, and lost the nomination badly to Humphrey, getting only 146 delegates at a convention that was so contentious that the party (acting on recommendations from a commission headed by McGovern) rewrote the nomination procedure and convention rules after Humphrey got creamed in the electoral college in the fall (he lost the popular vote by less than 1%, but carried only 13 states in the electoral college and got the votes of only 191 electors, to Nixon’s 32 states and 301 electors – George Wallace got 5 states and 42 electors).
McGovern’s 1972 campaign, run by Gary Hart, was a media and anti-war darling, but it had little or no support with the Democratic establishment. Much of the Democrats’ establishment had already been angered at having its wings clipped by the McGovern Commission’s rules changes, and in an age in which machine politics meant much more than they do today in Democratic circles, Hart ran a campaign that relied on the organizations in the anti-war movement to the exclusion of established Democratic pols, all of whom were lined up for Humphrey in ‘68 and most for Muskie in the ‘72 primary.
In a startling display of arrogance, that organizational structure persisted after McGovern captured the nomination, and suddenly all those democratic pols who were used to being the precinct captains for the party were having to deal with some long-haired hippie college kid down the street who was running their precinct for McGovern. Those political footsoldiers had to ask themselves if they’d be better off if McGovern won and that hippie college kid (whose politics and culture they were already deeply suspicious of) controlled the patronage in their precincts, or if Nixon won and they got another shot in four years. They decided in droves that the latter was the best course, and their efforts in the general election were, shall we say, subdued (or sometimes energetic on the other side – there were hundreds of “Democrats for Nixon” organizations around the country). Despite the efforts of lots of college kids, McGovern lost in a historic landslide, carrying only Massachusetts and Washington, D.C.
There are some striking parallels to the present race in that history, and fortunately for the Democrats, some significant differences.
Howard Dean’s candidacy in 2004 was a significant forerunner of this year’s race. Dean took an early lead in the primary by raising a heap of early money on the internet, money he raised in no small measure because of his opposition to the Iraq war (both of which served to get him a lot of press). Like McGovern, his campaign used that press (and the new organizational potential of the internet) to build a campaign structure largely outside the traditional Democratic machinery. He ended up losing badly to John Kerry, partly because he was successfully painted as a loony left-wing candidate by his opponents (despite entirely centrist policies as governor of Vermont), and partly because Kerry’s naval service during Vietnam convinced many Democrats that he was a more credible opponent of the war, but maybe most importantly because he really never managed to convert his surprising internet buzz into boots on the ground that spread the word to those who weren’t online and got out the vote. His organization produced stunning streams of cash from a source that had previously been completely untapped, but couldn’t convert that cash to votes.
If the result of McGovern’s ’68 candidacy was that the rules for the primary season got rewritten (laying the groundwork for this year’s arguments about the legitimacy of superdelegates, caucuses, etc.), the result of Dean’s candidacy was that the unwritten rules about the Democrats’ funding structure changed drastically. Dean had proved that smaller donors could be reached cheaply and effectively online, to provide a funding stream that was even more rewarding than the Republicans’ use of direct mailing lists, which has been clobbering Democrats for years. When he was elected DNC chair after the loss, Dean helped to institutionalize that new source of cash, and used it to fund his “50-state strategy”, which was an effort to decentralize the party organization.
Democrats had been ceding large parts of the country to Republicans, using limited resources to hold on to Democratic base states and compete in only a few battlegrounds, like Florida and Ohio. In addition, the party had focused the vast majority of its resources on winning the presidency, and devoted little to party building, down-ticket races. The result was that the party was getting ever more hollowed out at its base, while a small cadre of professional consultants were getting paid millions to preside over loss after loss at the top of the ticket.
The Dean strategy was roundly criticized at its inception, and a large number of established Democrats opposed Dean’s election as DNC chair as a result of it, including DSCC chair Chuck Schumer, DCCC chair Rahm Emmanuel, Clinton advisors Paul Begala and James Carville, and a host of other Clintonite strategists. Clinton and his DLC allies had finally been very successful at raising money from the traditional corporate sources of Republican funding, and they saw this as a repudiation of the tactics they had used to fund the most successful Democratic politician in decades. They thought that the failure of the Deaniacs in 2004 was indicative of an inherent flaw in online politicking, and that Dean would preside over the destruction of the party.
The jury’s still out on whether or not they were right. The election of 2006 was a partial vindication of Dean’s strategy, but it wasn’t a presidential election, and Democrats’ fortunes were unquestionably improved by running against a spectacularly unpopular president and a Republican Congress that only seemed to take time out from rubber-stamping the proven failures of that president’s policies to accept bribes or molest their staffs. That there was a Democratic landslide was undeniable, but the sources of that landslide were and are still open to debate.
In a very real sense, that debate continues to this day, and the two strategies pursued by the Clinton and Obama camps represent its two sides. Clinton’s candidacy started as a coronation, and fell apart from being unable to react to the insurgency of Obama’s campaign, an inability driven in part by the fact that they just couldn’t believe it was happening. Obama’s advantage in fundraising has been huge, and a great deal of his money has come from online sources, in small denominations that make it possible for him to return to the well again and again, while Clinton’s donors maxed out on their contributions early
Considering the fate of McGovern’s candidacy, the similarities between it and Obama’s would be very troubling, but both the environment and the party have changed in the last 35 years, and the changes may make the difference in the fortunes of the two candidacies.
First, the Democrats have been out of the White House for 8 years, and haven’t controlled the Congress for 14. There is considerably less sense that hanging around for four more years waiting for your personal shot is an acceptable alternative – Clinton would not be forgiven for doing so in this environment, and all but the most fevered of her supporters should eventually recognize that Obama’s a far better choice than John McCain in regard to the issues that drove them to the polls.
Second, those consultants who have been running the Democratic party in Washington for the last few decades (who have presided over its steady retreat) are held in considerably less regard than they have been. Their organizational and tactical skills have come into serious question, and they have hollowed out their own power base so much (by being complicit in the decline of the union movement) that they don’t have anywhere near the clout they once had.
Third, the online sources of Obama’s political strength are still confined to those with a computer and both time and inclination to use it, but that group is growing daily, and the demographics are strongly in his favor – the country is more urban, better educated, and more wired than it was in 1972, and even more than in 2004. The liberal blogosphere is noisy, but it’s also larger and more involved than it has been before this. It has learned some important lessons since 2004 about the nature and limitations of its own power, and could be a much stronger ally since its experience in 2004 and 2006.
Fourth, Obama himself is different from McGovern. He learned the lessons of the Dean campaign’s failure, and built a remarkably disciplined field operation that outfought Clinton’s people in the ground games of several states and brought him the nomination. Dean’s 50-state strategy itself has done a good deal to improve his position, and the guy that just joined the DNC from Obama's campaign is the one responsible for a spectacularly successful get out the vote operation, so there’s evidence that he’s already won the intraparty fight about whose party it is. In addition, the power of the internet as an organizing tool is large and growing, and the lessons of how to use it politically are being absorbed. It’s not a certainty that Obama can absorb Clinton’s field staff, but it’s likely, and even without them, Obama has a much better chance than McGovern did.
Fifth, after another two years of steady revelations about how prevalent and corrupt the K Street gang has been in American politics, the distaste among the electorate for the influence of corporate lobbyists has grown very strong. Obama has made much of the difference in the sources of his funding, making the rejection of lobbyist and PAC money a centerpiece of his pitch. It’s certainly possible to overstate the change here, but that distinction may well get a fair amount of traction in the current environment nonetheless.
Finally, there are more issues than just the disagreements over a war to motivate the Democratic base and give it a reason to get involved. Global warming, energy prices, foreign policy, and fundamental disagreements about the direction of the country are all pressing on us at once, and lend a sense of urgency that grows daily. In such a critical environment, we can hope that such petty quarrels over personal gripes won’t carry the day.
Update: Sorry, I lopped off the last paragraph of the post when I posted it the first time. Oops.
Whether all these various
comparisons between McGovern’s ’72 campaign and Obama’s are apt or not, there
is a contest for control of the Democratic party underway between supporters of
Obama and those of Clinton, and apart from the natural disinclination of a
national campaigner to give up on a grand dream, the preservation of a faction
within the democratic party is what has driven a lot of this primary season,
both its length and its acrimony. For good or ill, Clinton’s DLC people have
been running the party for almost 20 years, and they don’t want to stop.
Obama’s campaign represents an insurgency within the party that has been
growing for the last 4 years, and has come to fruition at last. Now, we’ll see
if they’re right, and the party will move toward a successful new future, or if
the Clinton’s were, and Democrats lose in 2008. Either way, we can expect the
losers of this intraparty squabble to blame the result on specific conditions,
but either way, the conditions will have been only part of the problems.