Tuesday, May 16, 2006

It was Bobby's assassination, not John's, that began the Democrats' Long March to wimpiness

I just posted a response to a question posed by my friend Tom Roeser at his blog, to wit: when did the Democrats become such wimps, anyway? (I'm paraphrasing. Tom is too nice and too Old School to refer to the Democrats as "wimps." I am not known for being "nice" -- to my opponents, anyway -- and I'm certainly not Old School.) So I've decided to post my response, in somewhat longer form, here.

Tom began his post by suggesting it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy that began the Democrats' march to the mush.

I think Tom is half right on this one, so I'll agree with him halfway. That is, it WAS the Kennedy assassination that began the process of changing the Democrats from the Cold Warriors abroad/welfare statists at home to just plain wimps everywhere -- but it was the assassination of ROBERT Kennedy, not John, that began the Long March.

Consider: Even after November 1963, the Democrats nominated for President LBJ (in 1964) and HHH (in 1968) -- the last two committed Cold War Liberals to serve in either of the nation's two highest offices.

It was at the Democratic National Convention of 1968, right here in Chicago, that the house came tumbling down, scant weeks after Bobby Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles, where he had just won the California primary -- and with it, likely, the Democratic nomination.

We've all seen the footage of Chicago cops busting heads in Grant Park. We've all seen the footage of Mayor Daley, from the floor, screaming obscenities at Sen. Abe Ribicoff, at the podium. And we all know how the national Democratic Party leaders swore in the aftermath, "never again."

What far fewer are aware of, though -- and I'd bet that a lot of the readers of Tom's blog are among the relatively few who DO know -- is that it was from the ruins of the 1968 Democratic National Convention that our entire presidential nominating process was f'ed up.

Right up to and through 1968, presidential candidates were nominated in the proverbial smoke-filled back rooms. Primary elections to choose delegates to the national conventions weren't important -- Hubert Humphrey won the 1968 Democratic nomination without winning a SINGLE state primary election, and Richard Nixon didn't even win the most votes cast by GOP voters in primaries across the country. (That honor went to California Governor Ronald Reagan, who ran as a favorite son in the CA GOP primary unopposed -- and in doing so, won 1.6 million GOP primary votes, in a year when Richard Nixon won a total of 1.5 million GOP primary votes in all the other state primaries combined.)

But at the brutal 1968 Democratic convention, the Democratic Party's Elders established the McGovern-Frasier Commission, to recommend changes to the rules governing the selection of delegates to the national convention. The creation of the commission was, at the time, seen as nothing more than a bone to be thrown to the protesters. It was meant to quiet them down, to give them a "victory" they could claim over a Democratic Party establishment they despised.

Those rules were adopted in 1970, just in time for them to govern the 1972 nominating process.

Out were the old-line, established pols, the guys who -- while not necessarily practicing democracy as we know it -- knew how to pick candidates who could a) get elected and b) do at least a reasonable job once in office. In were the new party activists, the special interest groups, the single issue groups -- in other words, the left-most of the influences on the national Democratic Party.

Their next two nominees were South Dakota Senator George McGovern, who lost 49 states on a bring-them-home-now platform, and Jimmy Carter, who famously opined at Notre Dame that we as a nation were "over our inordinate fear of communism" -- leaving us to wonder if he still had even an ORDINATE fear of communism. The poor citizens of Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (each of whose nations fell to Soviet-backed communists between 1975-79) wondered, too.

Now, how did a simple change in the rules of the delegate selection process lead the Democrats away from their historically strong anti-communist position on foreign policy? Well, by changing the rules, you change the outcome. A candidate and a campaign strategy that works under one set of rules won't work under another; and a candidate and a campaign strategy that wouldn't have worked under the old set of rules may well flourish under the new set.

That, in fact, is exactly what has happened to our presidential nominating process. We now nominate candidates for President in a far different way from the way we did just 40 years ago.

It should come as no surprise, then, that once we changed the way we nominate Presidential candidates -- and, therefore, Presidents -- we would change the kind of people we end up nominating.

To win the nomination under the old system required coalition-building skills. Negotiating skills, of the kind necessary to wheedle and woo in the back rooms. I'll trade you a subcabinet post, Mr. State Delegation Chairman, for your bloc of delegate votes, etc. Winning required successful government experience. The Establishments of both major political parties acted as the National Vetters, ensuring that no one could get into the Oval Office who hadn't at least first passed their minimal screening.

Under the new rules, though, the National Vetters lost their power. Candidates no longer had to kowtow to Party Elders. Because delegates were to be selected openly, via primary elections, candidates could appeal over the heads of the Party Bosses and directly to the masses. No longer was long experience and coalition building skill required; instead, a good head of hair, the ability to deliver a good speech, the talent for packaging political messages into soundbites suitable for TV responses, and a willingness to spend ungodly amounts of time on the phone raising money were the new coins of the realm.

In came the more extreme members of both parties. Because candidates found they could rally more votes on the fringes of their parties, they played to them -- candidates are ambitious people, and most of them can't honestly be called dumb. So they went where the votes were. And because the votes in Democratic presidential primaries were on the left end of the spectrum, that's where Democratic candidates went.

Mayor Richard J. Daley was a well-known anti-communist. He must be rolling over in his grave at the thought that it was his chaotic convention in 1968 that led to the Democrats' abandoning their strong foreign policy/national security credentials.


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