Ghost of 1968 Haunts DNC

Tuesday, August 15 -- A tiresome Democratic vice president seeks the top job, but his administration's policies have so alienated Democratic-oriented activists they take to the streets during the party's convention. Meanwhile, the Republicans serve up a shrewdly repackaged candidate with a surname rejected eight years earlier by the national electorate, a candidate speaking well-scripted words of moderation and compassion.

If this scenario feels like a recurring dream, that's because we lived through it once before, in the tumultuous election year of 1968. To Democrats, it may be more like a nightmare; if history repeats itself, the GOP will reinhabit the White House. There is one significant difference between then and now -- Ralph Nader -- and it's a difference that may hurt the Democrats' chances.

First, the similarities.

In 1968, Richard Nixon won by appealing to voters in the center with the help of soothing talk about peace in Vietnam and "bringing us together again" at home. His opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, lost the support of the left by clinging to his boss's failed Vietnam policy.

Humphrey's hawkishness led some Democratic voters to stay home or vote for protest candidates. It dampened enthusiasm among young activists for crucial get-out-the-vote efforts. And it divided the party.

As if reading from the vintage 1968 script, today's Democratic leadership clings so fervently to its policy of corporate-oriented trade -- and the campaign funding it brings in -- that it seems to be almost deliberately dampening the enthusiasm of core activists allied with the party.

Like the World Trade Organization officials who were blindsided by protests that disrupted their meeting in Seattle last fall, Vice President Al Gore is underestimating the depth of resentment caused by the administration's trade policies. Seattle-inspired protesters -- who see those policies as protecting corporate profits at the expense of workers, human rights and the environment -- have descended upon Los Angeles in droves.

In June, Gore made it even more clear that he takes them and their votes for granted, by choosing as his campaign chairman William Daley, the White House's top lobbyist for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the China trade deal. (Daley, incidentally, is the son of former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, the Humphrey-backer and conservative Democrat whose mishandling of the convention contributed to Humphrey's 1968 defeat.)

And here come the Republicans, who won in '68 with "the new Nixon," offering up a new Bush in 2000: "George the Compassionate."

Although there are uncanny parallels between 1968 and 2000, there are also differences, which may make prospects worse for Gore -- but, paradoxically, more favorable for the future of progressive politics.

In 1968, the only peace-oriented alternatives to Humphrey were fringe candidates like Eldridge Cleaver and Dick Gregory, and they were on the ballot in only some states.

This year, Nader, a widely respected political figure, will be on the ballot as the Green Party candidate in almost every state. Nader is capitalizing on the dissatisfaction with Gore, tapping into the energy of activists who see Gore as not only wrong on trade but also unduly beholden to corporate interests in general.

In 1968, the Democratic dissenters were primarily young people, many below the then-voting age of 21, with few resources. Their social and cultural positions often put them outside the mainstream.

Today, progressive dissent is more mature, has more resources and brings together mainstream issues from economic fairness to environmentalism.

And whereas the unions in 1968 largely sided with Humphrey against dissenters, many in labor today loudly question Clinton-Gore trade policies and have actively supported the protests in Seattle and elsewhere. Two powerful unions, the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers, even flirted with endorsing Nader, a powerful critic of trade deals deemed hurtful to workers. The Teamsters have not yet endorsed a candidate; the UAW endorsed Gore last week.

If George W. Bush wins over a divided opposition, there will be much soul-searching on the left. Some will blame Gore's conservative policies on issues like trade, military spending and the drug war. There will also be scrutiny of Gore's campaign choices, like his selection of Daley and pro-business, free-trader running mate Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Others will blame Nader as a spoiler.

The blame-Nader chorus has been rising from Gore backers since national polls last month found Nader's support as high as 8 percent. Although Nader is indeed popular with disgruntled Democrats (10 percent of union members in Michigan, according to one poll), he is also popular with independents and John McCain voters.

But where Nader may do best is with disaffected or unengaged Americans who otherwise would not bother casting a ballot, especially newly eligible voters on college campuses. For progressives, this mass of new voters may hold the key to November.

Most voters registered and brought to the polls by the Nader campaign will likely vote Democratic for Congress, because the Green Party won't be fielding candidates in many districts. These voters may decide whether majority control of Congress returns to Democratic lawmakers, many of whom bristle at the Republican Lite programs of Clinton-Gore.

Haunted by the ghost of 1968, the American left is a long way from learning whether this recurring dream will end well or end badly. The real test may come after the 2000 election.

If the Nader electoral movement evaporates in 2001 while the GOP wins the White House and keeps Congress, few on the left will call it anything but a nightmare. If, however, the Nader upsurge leads to a permanent, emboldened progressive electoral force -- whether inside or outside the Democratic party -- it would widely be deemed a success, even if a new Bush is temporarily in the White House.

Jeff Cohen (jeffco@ulster.net) is co-author of "Wizards of Media Oz" and is a weekly panelist on Fox News Channel's "News Watch." He wrote this article for Perspective.

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