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The first Republican president once said, "While the people retain their virtue and their vigilance, no administration by any extreme of wickedness or folly can seriously injure the government in the short space of four years." If Mr. Lincoln could see what's happened in these last three-and-a-half years, he might hedge a little on that statement.
-Ronald Reagan

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Wednesday, December 17, 2003

There have been various commentators of late comparing Dean to McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis. In looking at the competition of Dean vs Clark, the historical analogy that strikes me goes back a bit further. (Although the prize for going farthest into Democratic history to find Dean analogies goes to Lilith Devlin.)

Bobby Kennedy is today remembered as a hero to most liberals. The RFK presidency that never was is probably the single greatest lost opportunity for American progressive politics of the past half century. But what fewer now remember is that, only hours before he died, most liberals were working to stop him.

A little history, since blog audiences tend to be young and even smart young people can have weird ideas about the history that they didn't live through. In 1967, Allard Lowenstein was shopping for a major Democrat to lead an anti-war challenge to incumbent Lyndon Johnson. The first man he went to, Bobby Kennedy, turned him down. So did several others until, finally, a liberal Senatior name Eugene McCarthy agreed. McCarthy ran and lost in New Hampshire. But Johnson was looking at a harsh reality. He had lost the party's southern wing on civil rights and now the liberal north on Vietnam. The size of the McCarthy vote in New Hampshire convinced him that he couldn't win and might well be the first candidate in nearly a century to lose his own party's renomination. Johnson dropped out of the race.

With Johnson out, Kennedy changed his mind and joined the race, as did Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Any of the three was, on paper, a good liberal choice. But Humphrey was tainted by his association with Johnson and the war and remained strictly the candidate of party insiders with limited popular support. The primaries (most states didn't have one in those days) were mainly McCarthy vs Kennedy.

McCarthy was a man with a sterling liberal past who was drifting to the right. (He would ultimately endorse Ronald Reagan.) He was a decent man whose hobbies including writing poetry, and anything but an effective politician. Had he ultimately won the nomination, he would have had little chance to defeat the driven and thoroughly political Richard Nixon.

Kennedy had a shaky past, including working on the Senate staff of Joseph McCarthy. But since becoming Attorney General, and especially since the murder of JFK, he had become deeply attached to the cause of the disenfranchised and impoverished. He was a superb politician whose brother was still beloved by most voters and he had real charisma of his own, as well as being a strong strategist who had made most of the key moves to win the White House for his brother. Kennedy lost Oregon, but won every other primary he ran in. After he won the critical California primary on the last night of his life, probably the only thing that could have kept him out of the presidency is what did.

Kennedy was, in 1968, probably the more liberal of the candidates, although that wasn't necessarily obvious from looking at their past records. It was obvious to anyone who looked closely that he was the more electable, and that there were few or no issues where the division between them was fundamental. But it was McCarthy whom most liberal activists backed, due primarily to the fact that he had opposed the war earlier and more directly than Kennedy or anyone else in the Democratic leadership. (My mother was one of those activists and, as an grade schooler, I went with her while she walked our home precinct for McCarthy.)

Howard Dean is not Gene McCarthy. The most conspicuous difference for this analogy is that, unlike the cerebral and aloof McCarthy, he is a talented candidate, not overly scrupulous, who will fight hard and skillfully. He's probably a worse man than McCarthy, but certainly a better politician, and he'll need all his talents to have any chance against Bush, who has more money and fewer moral limits than Richard Nixon.

Then again, Democrats got smart in 1968 and were preparing to nominate the right man. Although some say otherwise, this race is not yet over and Wesley Clark, the RFK analogue of 2004, may yet force liberal Democrats to experience the bitter taste of victory.