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That Time-Honored Democratic Party Tradition: Self-Destruction : Politics: Since the Chicago Convention of 1968, the Democrats have specialized in internecine warfare. A sorry affair for the party of F.D.R.

August 29, 1993|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — From Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s to Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society in the 1960s, the Democratic Party ruled America. They were the nation's majority. They set the agenda.

All that came to an end, suddenly and violently, 25 years ago last week. At the end of August, 1968, the Democratic National Convention met in Chicago to nominate Hubert H. Humphrey for President--and ended up in a bitter and bloody civil war. The Democrats paid a terrible price. They got shut out of the White House for 20 of the next 24 years.

Now, a Democrat is President again. But the scars of 1968 have never healed.

In 1968, the Old Politics and the New Politics confronted each other in Chicago. It was the young protesters out on the streets versus the old party bosses in the convention hall. Literally, the insiders versus the outsiders.

It was also a class conflict. Poorer blue-collar Democrats were for Humphrey. Better-educated, upper-middle-class Democrats were for Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the man who won the primaries and drove Johnson out of the race.

The party split wide open, and the blood began to flow. On one side were the Old Politics regulars. They controlled the convention and nominated Humphrey, who had not run in a single primary. On the other side were the New Politics liberals. They protested Humphrey's nomination--and got their heads beaten in by Mayor Richard J. Daley's cops.

"Boss" Daley was, of course, the archetypal Old Politics Democrat--vulgar, ethnic and corrupt. He was the deal-maker supreme. Humphrey's nomination was the ultimate political deal. The protesters demanded a New Politics, high-minded and issue-oriented, in which there would be "no more deals." By rewriting the party rules, they made it so.

Only one candidate could have brought the two sides together in 1968. That was Robert F. Kennedy. His campaign won strong support from both liberals and regulars. But Kennedy was murdered the night of the California primary.

What tore the Democrats apart was, of course, the Vietnam War. That war ended in 1975. But the bitterness remains. Look what happened to President Bill Clinton when he visited the Vietnam Memorial earlier this year. He tried to heal the wounds and ended up the target of protests for his 1960s anti-war activities.

Race was also a big issue in 1968. But not at the Chicago Convention. After all, it was the Old Politics regulars--John F. Kennedy, Johnson and Humphrey--who first embraced the civil-rights movement and ended the Democratic Party's 100-year-old accommodation with racism. New Politics liberals had no quarrel with Humphrey on civil rights.

But a lot of Southern whites and northern urban ethnics did. Many followed Independent George C. Wallace out of the Democratic Party in 1968. And never came back. Most Southern whites didn't even vote for fellow Southerners Jimmy Carter and Clinton.

The fight over Vietnam raged on into 1972. The liberals got their revenge. They seized control of the party and nominated anti-war candidate George McGovern. Just as the regulars repudiated the party's racist tradition, the liberals repudiated the party's anti-communist interventionism that went back to Harry S. Truman.

Like Humphrey before him, McGovern lost. The 1968 election proved the regulars could not win without the liberals. The 1972 election proved the liberals could not win without the regulars.

1976 could have been a turning point. The Vietnam War was over, and the split in the party should have healed. It was time for a deal. The Old Politics regulars would admit they were wrong about Vietnam. The New Politics liberals would sign on to the tradition of big government.

Only one Democrat could bring this off. But Edward M. Kennedy chose not to run in 1976. Instead, the liberals went for Morris K. Udall, the regulars supported Sen. Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson and Wallace had his last hurrah.

So what happened? Carter, a non-traditional Democrat, defeated all three opponents, one at a time and on their own turf. The historic moment was lost. As President, Carter alienated liberals and regulars. The liberals thought he was too moderate, and the regulars got mad when he failed to deliver the economic goods.

In 1980, the anti-Carter coalition materialized, led by Kennedy. Kennedy offered himself as the rightful inheritor of party leadership. But he was four years too late. In the disastrous 1980 election, Carter's liberal support was drained away by Independent John Anderson, while many regular Democrats stayed home--or voted for Ronald Reagan.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, the political agenda was dominated by Vietnam, race and social protest. After the energy crisis of the mid-1970s, the agenda shifted to economics, where it has remained. Here's the irony: Economics had always been the Democrats' strength. But with the tax revolt and soaring inflation, and with Carter in office, the economic issue turned against the Democrats.

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