Dem 51
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What Happened Last Time?

Our readers who were born before 1950 can skip this item. They surely remember it all too well. But for everyone else, there could be a lesson in what happened the last time an incumbent president (under pressure) decided not to run for reelection. The year was 1968 and Lyndon Johnson had many legislative victories under his belt, including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and many popular Great Society programs, including the War on Poverty. Unfortunately for him, there was also another war going on, in Vietnam, with demonstrations on college campuses all over the country. Students were chanting: "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"

Johnson's approval rating dropped to under 40% and his not-yet-announced campaign was listless. He was drifting. Aides were doing the work as Johnson was focused on Vietnam. Nevertheless, no heavyweight Democrats jumped in to challenge him, not even the heaviest of them all, Bobby Kennedy. They felt that taking on a sitting president would be suicidal for the party. In the winter of 1968, an unknown antiwar senator from Minnesota, Gene McCarthy, who liked poetry more than he liked campaigning, entered the primaries to give the kids a way to work within the system rather than outside it. To McCarthy's and everyone else's surprise, he nearly beat Johnson in New Hampshire, getting 42% of the vote to Johnson's 49%. Kennedy got the message that Johnson was not inevitable and 4 days later announced his entry into the race. Polls in the next week showed McCarthy beating Johnson in the next primary, in Wisconsin. Two days before the Wisconsin primary, Johnson made a televised address discussing the war and ending with a bombshell bigger than anything he had used in Vietnam. He said: "I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president." (V) remembers turning to a friend immediately and asking: "Is he becoming a Republican?"

That's when the trouble began. Yes, Democrats were rid of a weak president they thought couldn't win, but Generic Democrat took a pass and they had to convince Real Democrat to run. Three weeks later, then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey jumped in. Now there were three serious candidates: McCarthy, Kennedy, and Humphrey. Now what? Well, the three of them slugged it out, badly fracturing the Democrats. Meanwhile, Richard Nixon was back from the dead solidifying his hold on the Republican nomination. In June, Kennedy was assassinated in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, just after winning the California primary.

By the time of the August 26 convention in Chicago, the Democrats were fractured beyond repair. McCarthy had won six primaries and Kennedy had won four, but in most states, the party machine picked the delegates and Humphrey had a majority of all the delegates, even though he hadn't even entered any primaries. McCarthy supporters showed up at the convention in force to demonstrate since the two antiwar candidates were clearly more popular than Humphrey, who was saddled with Johnson's war. Oddly enough, Humphrey did not get any credit for Johnson's many legislative achievements, which were wildly popular. The police were ready for the demonstrators and beat them to a pulp, in what later investigations referred to as a "police riot." The country was treated to days of "Democrats in disarray" stories. Nixon won the Electoral College handily, 301 EVs to 191, even though he beat Humphrey by only 512,000 popular votes out of 73 million cast. George Wallace won five Southern states and 46 electoral votes, but even if he had not run and Humphrey had won them all, it wouldn't have been enough.

Are there parallels now to 1968? Could be. If Biden withdraws, the convention will have to pick the nominee. Kamala Harris will certainly be nominated, but we'd bet $1 (OK, maybe $5; we're not big-time gamblers) that one of the 4,000 delegates will nominate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). And maybe a few other folks. There could be a days' long battle with multiple ballots. If Harris doesn't get the nod in the end, the Democrats' most loyal bloc, Black women, will be truly miffed (well, unless Michelle Obama wins). But if it is a white man, they will be furious since Harris is kind of next in line. But party strategists know that the reason Biden beat Trump and Hillary Clinton didn't is that Biden did vastly better among white men than Clinton. Would Harris do better than Clinton among white men? We think not. Maybe she could make that deficit up somehow, but it is not a sure thing.

The only way out that we can see now is very unlikely: Justice Sonia Sotomayor retires this week, Biden nominates Kamala Harris to her seat, and then the various governors debate and the convention picks two of them for the ticket. Don't hold your breath though.

The year 2024 is not the year 1968. The contentious war now doesn't involve young Americans being drafted to die in the jungle far away. But issues of race and gender are far bigger than they were in 1968 and the other team is even more unified and fanatic than it was in 1968. The Politico article linked to above ends with the sentence: For those arguing that it's time for Biden to step aside, the question is obvious: What makes you think that wouldn't make matters worse? (V)

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