What Bernie Sanders Should Learn From Eugene McCarthy

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tags: election 2016, Bernie Sanders, Eugene McCarthy



Julian E. Zelizer is a political historian at Princeton University. He is the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society" (Penguin Press).

Senator Bernie Sanders has a decision to make. Hillary Clinton’s big New York win on Tuesday narrowed Sanders’ chances at becoming the Democratic nominee considerably. As we near the point that Clinton’s nomination becomes inevitable, the Vermont senator will be left with two options: Will he actively support her candidacy? Or will draw out what has become a highly contentious primary race—perhaps even choosing to sit out the general election altogether?

As he ponders what to do, Sanders might want to consider what happened in 1968, when Eugene McCarthy—the democratic insurgent of his time—failed to rally behind establishment figure Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The parallels are significant: McCarthy had the support of a young, progressive, angry base, while Humphrey appealed to the party elitesand older voters who preferred the status quo—and the two did not get along. When McCarthy failed to win the nomination, he was conspicuously absent from the campaign trail. He did finally endorse Humphrey just days before Election Day, but his statement was tepid.

In the end, McCarthy’s unwillingness failure to swing his supporters into the Humphrey camp didn’t just help Humphrey lose the election that year—it also helped paved the way for Republican dominance of the electoral map for decades to come. 

In January 1968, McCarthy, the senator from Minnesota who first gained national attention by taking on Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, announced that he’d be challenging incumbent democrat President Lyndon Johnson. “Those of us who have raised some questions against the administration and have suggested a challenge are variously labeled as dissident Democrats,” he told a large crowd while campaigning in New Hampshire. “It’s my general thesis that we’re not only the most loyal and sound Democrats, but also are carrying out a most significant patriotic duty in the United States in the year 1968.”

McCarthy, who wanted America to get out of Vietnam, energized young Democrats who had grown frustrated and angry with the Democratic Party in the 1960s—particularly with the Johnson administration’s policies in Vietnam. The war had been disastrous to the country, to the Vietnamese and to the world. McCarthy didn’t believe that Johnson should be allowed to serve a second term in the White House, where he would likely continue with the administration’s terrible decisions—and many young voters agreed. McCarthy drew large and energetic crowds, filled with younger voters, who saw his candidacy as a breath of fresh air. Richard Goodwin, who had written speeches for Johnson and now worked for McCarthy, recalled in his memoirs of what he saw in New Hampshire: “They were coming now by the thousands, from all parts of the country; on weekends, when classes were not in session, their numbers rose to four or five thousand. Every week, every day of the week, they came—from as far away as Michigan to the west and Virginia to the south; in buses and cars, by prearranged transportation, or by hitchhiking.” One of the young people who was inspired by McCarthy’s anti-war message and campaigned for him in New Hampshire was Wellesley junior Hillary Clinton, who had arrived to college as a Goldwater Republican. ...





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