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The Liberal's Enduring Dilemma: Whether To Vote For Disappointing Centrists?

The choice of voting for Obama, a third-party candidate, or sitting out is nothing new. And neither are the stakes.

In 1968, Sam Brown, like many of his youthful contemporaries, was disgusted by the Vietnam War which had already claimed more than 30,000 American lives and killed countless Vietnamese. So, he poured his energy into Eugene McCarthy’s anti-war campaign for the Democratic nomination, serving as McCarthy’s Youth Coordinator.

Then, after McCarthy lost to Hubert Humphrey at the tumultuous Chicago convention, the 25-year-old Brown faced a tough choice: whether to sit out the general election in protest of Humphrey’s support for President Lyndon Johnson’s war policies or accept Humphrey as superior to his Republican rival, Richard Nixon.

Brown’s 1968 dilemma also has recurred periodically for Democrats as some on the Left prefer to cast votes for third parties or simply not vote to protest some shortcoming of the Democratic nominee – even if the Republican alternative is likely to pursue more warlike policies and roll back programs aimed at helping the poor and the middle class.

In 1980, many on the Left abandoned Jimmy Carter because of his tacking to the political center, thus clearing the way for Ronald Reagan. In 2000, nearly three million voters cast ballots for Ralph Nader (who dubbed Al Gore “Tweedle-Dum” to George W. Bush’s “Tweedle-Dee”), thus helping Bush get close enough in Florida to steal the White House (with further help from five Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court). Today, some on the Left are turning their backs on Barack Obama because he has disappointed them on health-care reform, the Afghan War and other policies.

It seems that on the Left – even more than on the Right – there is this quadrennial debate over whether one should withhold support from the Democratic nominee out of a sense of moral purity or hold one’s nose and accept the “lesser evil,” i.e. the major-party candidate who will inflict the least damage on Americans and the world.

Yet, as intensely as some on the Left disdain President Obama’s actions and inaction today, the cause for anger in 1968 was much greater. After running as the “peace” candidate in 1964, President Johnson had sharply escalated the U.S. involvement in Vietnam with Vice President Humphrey loyally at his side.

Then, in 1968, the bloody Tet offensive shattered U.S. assurances of impending victory; Johnson confronted a surprisingly strong challenge from Sen. Eugene McCarthy and decided not to seek reelection; Sen. Robert F. Kennedy entered the race, but was assassinated (as was civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.); and the Democratic convention in Chicago descended into chaos as police clashed with anti-war protesters on the streets.

Appeal to the McCarthy Youth

It was in that maelstrom of tragedy and anger that Sam Brown, like other McCarthy (and Kennedy) supporters had to decide whether to line up behind Humphrey, who was admired for his support for social and economic justice (even if he was condemned for his loyalty to Johnson), or to stay on the sidelines (and risk Nixon’s victory).

In a recent interview, Brown told me that he was on the fence about which way to go, saying his decision depended on Humphrey making a clean break with Johnson on the war. There was a widely held view at the time that Johnson was so psychologically “owned by the war” — and his responsibility for the terrible bloodshed — that he couldn’t take the necessary steps to make peace, Brown said.

Humphrey did not want to betray Johnson but understood that his campaign depended on his reuniting the shattered Democratic Party. So, Humphrey sent emissaries to approach Brown and other anti-war activists.