Democrats Need to Quit the Hand-wringing

Washington Matters

Democrats Need to Quit the Hand-wringing

As we noted earlier this week, it's a waste of time and effort to try pressuring Hillary Clinton to get out of the race. But Democrats also need to quit the hand-wringing that is driving that pressure -- fears that the party will dissolve into chaos and fratricide along the lines of their disastrous conventions in 1968 and '72. The comparisons border on the just plain silly.

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Sure, rank and file Democrats may be a little turned off and worn out by the unending battle, and Clinton and Obama supporters may be distraught over various tactics and attacks. But the candidates and the party as a whole are essentially on the same ideological page.

That certainly wasn't the case 40 years ago. The '68 convention in Chicago was a defining and extraordinarily damaging moment for the fractured, leaderless and grieving party -- LBJ was losing his grip on the party because of the Vietnam War and refused to run again and Robert Kennedy was gunned down after winning the California primary (which almost certainly would have meant winning the nomination). Despite the strength of anti-war candidates such as Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, Johnson's pro-war vice president, Hubert Humphrey, was headed for nomination. But the fault lines went far beyond the battle between hawks and doves. For four days and nights, the party engaged in one nasty skirmish after another -- between pro and anti-civil rights forces, young and old, pro and anti-establishment figures, old fashioned pols and party kingmakers versus activists, radicals and reformers. And while the fights inside created extraordinary chaos and nastiness inside the convention hall, it was just short of war outside, where the police force of the biggest city boss of them all, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, tried to shutdown loud, raucous and occasionally violent protesters outside.

The spectacle and bitterness of that convention provoked new delegate selection rules that weakened the power of party bosses, making room for feminists, black leaders and reformers representing various Democratic causes. The left rallied around George McGovern in 1972 and used those rules to win him the nomination.

I've been going to political conventions since Democrats nominated McGovern at that '72 meeting, although that first time was just as a copy boy. And for a kid of 17 who was an ardent fan of politics as spectator sport, it couldn't have been better theater, albeit theater as written by Beckett or Ionesco (who, of course, I was reading at the time). But for a political party it was a travesty. There were so many battles over various rules and seating of delegations that committees met during the day and the convention convened as a whole at night, when floor battles over the same and other issues became so protracted that the sessions didn't wind down until dawn. The entire Illinois delegation, including the now vilified Daley, was bounced in favor of one led by Jesse Jackson. McGovern was pushed waaaay out of prime time by the internecine warfare on the floor and gave his acceptance speech at almost 3 in the morning. The violence of 1968 was such a fearful specter that security bordered on the nightmarish. I walked to work every day past an elementary school where troops were housed and where tanks were parked on the playground. I walked home by way of the beach so I could watch the sun rise, persistently buzzed by helicopters and illuminated by their searchlights.

So there may be some fighting over how to seat some, any or all of the delegations from Florida and Michigan, but you surely won't see protracted credentials battles that pit delegations and party leaders against one another to the point of fisticuffs like Chicago and Miami. And the ideological convictions of the delegates are so homogenized -- and so much tamer -- that you certainly won't have any significant fights over the party platform, which is where the party's stand on the war was fought out in 1968, and the controversial issues of abortion and gay rights were aired substantially for the first time.

While the outright warfare and the left-wing's rise to power in the party debilitated it for decades, some fighting is good for a political party. The protracted battle may weary the nation as a whole, but it gives a voice to Democratic voters in every state. The combat will help put the unseasoned Obama in fighting trim, should he finally secure the nomination. And besides, Clinton's fight is one up a very steep hill, not a terminal case. There are realistic ways she could win. Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus points out that Clinton trails by about 133 delegates while Gary Hart and Ted Kennedy kept fighting to the conventions despite being much, much further behind at comparable stages of their campaigns in 1984 and 1980.

Obama, who claims backing from the left, center and right of his party, is no McGovern. And Clinton, who originally supported the war on Iraq but now favors withdrawing troops as soon as practical, is no Humphrey. Denver will be no Chicago or Miami. And John McCain could win in November, but he'll certainly not be any Richard Nixon -- and whoever emerges as the Democratic nominee will not lose every state but Massachusetts.