Friday, December 23, 2011

Ghosts of '68

As the polls of Republican voters have been careening from one anti–Mitt to the next, chatter about the possibility of a brokered convention has been rising above the din.

My original inclination was to dismiss such talk. The prospect just seemed too remote.

My parents weren't old enough to vote the last time there was a brokered convention. But the rapid rise and fall of challengers to the consistent frontrunner, Mitt Romney, has led me to conclude that a brokered convention is a real possibility. It may still be remote, but it is real.

Many Republicans seem to think Romney isn't committed enough to Republican values so the search has been on for someone else. And there just might be enough of those disgruntled Republicans to deny Romney enough delegate support to wrap up the nomination on the first ballot.

The problem is that each someone else to whom Republicans have flocked has been shown to be flawed in some way. It wouldn't be so bad if the flaws were thought to be modest, but these flaws have been too great for most Republicans.

Romney is always accused of being too wishy washy, a waffler, a flip–flopper. The same thing might be said of any Republican who ran for office in dark–blue Massachusetts — but he has been the one true constant in this volatile campaign. His rivals have risen and fallen, but Romney has remained about where he was from the beginning — around 25%.

That level of support won't be sufficient, his detractors argue, and I agree — if it remains where it has been through most of 2011.

But it won't.

I think it will start to fluctuate once the primaries and caucuses begin — and the fluctuations are likely to be upward. There is a kind of finality about primaries — and caucuses, too, for that matter. It is different from the phase we have been watching this year, which is dominated by fluid and non–binding polls.

Actual delegates are committed to candidates in the primaries and caucuses; there are real numbers to hang your hat on. True, those delegates are only committed through the first ballot — but delegates are not assigned to candidates at random. Those who come to the convention pledged to support Candidate A reached that point because they were true believers in Candidate A.

Unless Candidate A drops out after the first ballot, my guess is that they are likely to remain with Candidate A even if they are no longer bound by party rules to do so.

All of that remains hypothetical at this stage because no Republican convention has gone past the first ballot since Tom Dewey was nominated in three ballots to face President Truman in 1948.

Democrats hope that history will repeat itself in 2012 — an embattled Democratic president, running against a "do–nothing Congress," comes from behind to stage an upset victory and triumphantly waves the early edition of a metro newspaper prematurely proclaiming his electoral demise.

(In the 21st–century version, I guess the image — digital, of course — would be of Obama holding up a laptop with the message "Romney (or Gingrich or Paul or whomever) Defeats Obama.").

Perhaps that is what fate has in store. I have my doubts. I still believe the prevailing economic conditions will have an overwhelming influence on the outcome of next year's elections — unless something totally unexpected happens to distracts the public's attention a week or two before the election.

Republicans, on the other hand, have been wishing for a repeat of 1980, when a charismatic Republican (Ronald Reagan) emerged to defeat an embattled Democratic president (Jimmy Carter) in the general election.

Which scenario you see developing may depend upon which side you favor, but, from a purely historical standpoint, the election I see as having the most in common with the campaign upon which we have embarked is the 1968 campaign.

Then, as now, a Democrat was in the White House. He had been quite popular when he was elected four years earlier, but his approval ratings had steadily declined and his party had lost a lot of seats in Congress in the midterm elections.

"Of the paradox of Lyndon Johnson historians will write many books," wrote Theodore H. White in "The Making of the President 1968."

"Few men have done more good in their time, and no president has pressed more visionary ideas into law. Yet few have earned more abuse and roused less love, loyalty and affection from those he sought to help."

Seems like the kind of thing that some of Barack Obama's supporters might be inclined to write about him when the story of the 2012 presidential campaign is written.

Johnson decided not to seek renomination after he nearly lost the New Hampshire primary to Eugene McCarthy's insurgent campaign, and the story of the Democratic nomination battle that spring was the story of the McCarthy–Robert Kennedy duel in the primaries.

Obama is not likely to withdraw from the race — nor does he appear likely to drop Vice President Joe Biden from the ticket — so the prelude to the Democratic convention next year probably will be quite different from what it was in 1968.

But I believe the most striking similarities are to be found on the Republican side.

All along, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination was Richard Nixon, the former vice president who had been beaten in a close race for the presidency eight years earlier and then had lost a race for governor of California two years later. Nixon had a reputation as a conservative anti–communist, which he toned down in pursuit of the 1968 nomination.

And, as he positioned himself in the party's center, he turned back all challengers, one by one.

First, there was Mitt Romney's father, George, whose candidacy collapsed after he famously claimed he had been "brainwashed" into supporting the war. Romney was ridiculed for the remark and wound up dropping out of the race before the New Hampshire primary.

Nixon's next challenger was New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a darling of the antiwar wing of the Republican Party who emerged as its champion with a write–in campaign in New Hampshire.

Rocky did defeat Nixon in the Massachusetts primary, but, for the most part, his bid for the nomination was ineffective.

In the spring of 1968 — after the shooting of Martin Luther King and before the shooting of Bobby Kennedy — Nixon's fellow Californian, Gov. Ronald Reagan, was his next challenger.

At that time, Reagan was not the experienced executive he was when he was nominated in 1980. The 1968 Reagan had two years of experience as governor, which didn't really compare to Nixon's political record of more than two decades, yet he defeated Nixon in the California primary. Thanks to his margin there, Reagan finished the primaries (which were not nearly as widespread as they are today) with a slight edge over Nixon in the national popular vote.

But Nixon went to the convention a handful of delegates shy of securing the nomination. Reagan and Rockefeller reportedly were going to join forces in a final effort to deny Nixon the nomination, but neither would agree to endorse the other.

When all was said and done, Nixon won by a wide margin on the first ballot — and went on to win the presidency by a narrow margin in a three–candidate race that fall.

While the manner in which Nixon's rivals fell was not the same as it has been for Romney's, I find the parallels between 1968 and 2012 compelling.

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