Monday, March 17, 2008

Brokered Convention Could Sink Divided Democrats

The Democratic Party's divisions this year are reminiscent to 1968, when the party, divided by Vietnam, saw rioting in the streets outside Chicago's summer nominating convention - unrest which presaged the party's general election defeat that fall.

Could a similar run of events befall the Democrats in 2008? Michael Cohen has
a tantalizing analysis at the Wall Street Journal:

It has been more than five decades since any political party in America has had a brokered convention, and for political junkies a heated battle at the Democratic convention seems like a tantalizing possibility. But for Democrats, a protracted nomination battle, culminating in a convention fight, could undermine the party's hopes of reclaiming the White House this fall.

Since voters in Ohio and Texas breathed new life into Hillary Clinton's campaign, some have argued that the current stalemate will not hurt the party's candidate come November. After all, as several prominent bloggers have argued, wasn't the 1968 Democratic primary battle worse? Didn't eventual nominee Hubert Humphrey go on to lose by a mere 1% of the popular vote to Richard Nixon? If a bitter Democratic race hurts a party's chances in the general election, shouldn't Humphrey have lost by more?

The current struggle between Mrs. Clinton and Barack Obama doesn't hold a candle to 1968. Forty years ago that race was capped by a "police riot" against antiwar demonstrators at the party's national convention in Chicago. However, the lessons of that year should be sobering for Democrats today.

Humphrey won the nomination only to find himself at the helm of a party divided between hawks and doves, blacks and whites, and blue collar and white collar. He wasted critical weeks trying to unite the party instead of laying the groundwork for victory in November. It wasn't until late September that he succeeded at bringing Democrats together by pledging a conditional halt to bombing runs against North Vietnam, and appealing to labor by forcefully attacking independent candidate George Wallace.

After, turning his fire on Wallace and Nixon, Humphrey's poll numbers dramatically improved and nearly won him the election. But in the end, his defeat was devastating for Democrats. Four years earlier, Lyndon B. Johnson had crushed Barry Goldwater with 61% of the popular vote. In 1968, Humphrey won just 43%. The nomination fight had exposed fissures that Humphrey was not able to close by Election Day, and which continue to divide Democrats.

While divisions among Democrats today are not as severe, a drawn-out nomination fight could leave the party critically short of the time it will need to build a winning campaign. Recent exit polls show that 20%-30% of Democratic voters will be dissatisfied if their candidate loses the nomination. Those numbers will likely increase if the battle between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama intensifies, and especially if it ends in a bitter squabble over delegates at the convention. Although Democrats are more ideologically unified than any time in recent memory, the party's nominee will still have serious fences to mend. Mrs. Clinton would need to reach out to blacks and first-time voters. Mr. Obama would have to win over blue-collar voters. Unfortunately, with the convention in late August, whoever the nominee is will have little time to unify Democrats. In just two months, he or she will have to bridge party divides while also rolling out a general election campaign against John McCain. As the kids say, good luck with all that.
Cohen doesn't mention the latest controversies stirring the Democrats, from Obama's Wright controversy to the Clinton campaign's call for a blogging backlash against the Obama campaign's planned assault on Hillary.

Not only that, Cohen might be downplaying the Democratic divisions this year. While we have not had massive antiwar street protests and violence on the scale of the Vietnam era divisions, much of the radical antiwar and oppositional sentiment is unleashed online. We're seeing a level of political alienation with establishment politics that rivals earlier eras, but is challenging in new ways.
The left blogosphere holds itself up as the new grassroots of the Democratic Party, mounting a puritanical campaign against big pro-war Democrats such as Senator Joseph Lieberman. If Barack Obama - who's the hope of the alienated left-wing fringe - ends up losing to Clinton at a brokered convention, the 1968 analogy could prove more powerful than many suspect.

Already, under-the-radar left-wing cells are planning for major "
direct action" against the Democrats at the Denver convention in August. If radical organizations were to combine with larger numbers of disaffected groups - especially the same college-age cohorts who've turned out in massive numbers for Obama's nominating caucuses - the possibilty of a more full-blown 1968-style conflict can't be entirely ruled out.

My blogging buddy, Jan, who blogs over at
Vinegar and Honey, forsees racial unrest on the scale of the Watts riots in 1965:

With the current racial divide in this country, it is not a stretch to think that if Senator Obama, for any reason, loses the election that there will be a revolt unequalled by any other that we've seen here. Again, I believe, the white establishment will be targeted, in the belief that the election was stolen from him in some way. Add to this the mindset that there is no justice for blacks, and that they still do not have equal rights.
I'm sympathetic to the argument, although I would suggest that rather than a localized, spontaneous revolt, a broader, underground movement to violently disrupt the Democrats in Denver could emerge as the result of months of planning among hard-line groups currently making up the nihilist antiwar organizational structure.

We're already seeing efforts to "
recreate '68," so, again, possibilties are in the air, especially as more and more "insider" radicals - who regularly proclaim their solidarity with the world's socialist revolutionary forces - become increasingly disillusioned and more open to dramatically unconventionial (and potentially violent) political mobilization.

See also, the Politico, "
Antiwar Movement Wrestles with 1968."