Hillary's Nightmare: The Startling Parallels Between 'Inevitable' LBJ in 1968 and Hillary in 2016

Watching the "inevitable" Hillary Clinton campaign across Iowa reminded me of another profoundly flawed human being whose nomination was also seen as inevitable 18 month before Election Day: Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1967. 

Actually it was Gene McCarthy I first thought about when I read this a few weeks ago:

Again and again, the activists jumped to their feet, cheering on such promises as breaking up big banks, reining in Wall Street’s “reckless gambling” and addressing the country’s “gross concentrated wealth.”

They might have been listening to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whose populist crusade on income equality, health care and Social Security have prompted legions of liberal Democrats to try to draft her into a bid for the presidency.

But the speaker was Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who spent the weekend stumping across Iowa.

When I look at the dynamics of the 2016 Democrat Presidential field I have to wonder.  Is Martin J. O'Malley unwittingly playing Eugene J. McCarthy to Senator Elizabeth Warren's Bobby Kennedy?   I ask because I have to look all the way back to the 1968 election for a time in either party when not only has the person most activists want to see as the candidate repeatedly declined to enter the race.  Yet both Democrat activists and reporters keep talking about Warren in more flattering terms than they employ for actual candidates. That's the way Bobby Kennedy was often treated by Democrats and by the press in 1967 and early 1968.  It becomes very hard on the candidates actually in the race.  

Another thing that has me thinking along those lines is that President Lyndon B. Johnson was not a particularly likeable person. Even if he hadn't been presiding over an unpopular war, Johnson's style put him at odds with a large slice of the Democratic Party.  He was a throwback to before the age of television campaigns and uninspiring on the medium that had come to dominate national elections.  In his personal dealings his language was often was profane and his behavior could be vulgar.  There was an aura of corruption around him as he had made himself rich through his political connections, plus he had earned the nickname Landslide Lyndon through suspicions of ballot box stuffing in his home state of Texas. Profane, vulgar, untrustworthy, corrupt and unlikable are all are words that people often employ to describe Hillary Clinton.   And like LBJ, Hillary also has a formidable rival for the heart and soul of party activists, if not perhaps the general election voters, in Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Once Bobby declined to run, LBJ was seen as inevitable.  Certainly no one thought that McCarthy would impact the race, when near the end of 1967 Senator Gene McCarthy had the audacity to enter several primaries in opposition to President Johnson. McCarthy was barely known outside of his home state of Minnesota.  Even before the first primary, McCarthy had made headway in some early caucus states. Then came the stunning news on March 12 that McCarthy had won 42.4% of the primary vote in New Hampshire even though the polls taken before the election had shown his support was under 20%. Bobby Kennedy entered the race on March 16 and on March 31,1968 Johnson withdrew his name from contention, and Vice President Humphrey entered the race in his stead.  A political donnybrook broke out among the Democrats that only ended with Kennedy's assassination in the early morning hours after he won the June 5 California primary. That donnybrook left the ultimate nominee, Hubert H. Humphrey, in rough shape for the general election, which he lost.   

In some important ways I wonder if that 1968 Democrat donnybrook has ever really ended?  Certainly almost five decades later many activists on the left have not been able to stop playing what-if games about the Kennedy family that make the Bush family's attempts towards dynastic status look anemic.   But there may be more to it than that.  Over the last 100 years the Democrats seem to select their nominee from two distinct groups that do not really like each other.  There are those who seek to come across as men of ideals with their roots often in the elite educational institutions. These people are mostly from the North: Wilson, FDR, Adlai Stevenson, JFK, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore John Kerry and Barack Obama all come to mind.  Then there are the candidates who emphasize their practical political experience, who tend to be a lot less stylish (and often more venal) and who have mostly been from the South - Truman, LBJ, Carter and Bill Clinton.

How deep is this dislike?  I recall the always-astute Richard Nixon telling David Frost he was certain that LBJ knew the proper pronunciation of words like hors d'oeuvres. Nixon went on to note that once he became President, LBJ would mangle it into "horse doovers" when in front of the holdovers from JFK’s administration in the knowledge that it would irk the Harvard types to no end, but they would be too craven to ever correct the President of the United States. I also recall Lewis Lapham writing in Harper's Magazine around 1995 that he saw Bill Clinton as a human piñata, swinging on the winds of opinion polls and belching out goodies to anyone who took a whack at him.  And look at how the urban political machines have changed as the white ethnic working class decamped for the suburbs. 

Until Obama, the Southern candidates did better with the general public in recent decades, winning their Presidential elections. But Obama won largely because of massive turnouts of Black voters and so-called low information voters.  With the Democratic Party's appeal to working and middle class white voters, particularly men and married women, at all time lows, they need Obama-like levels of turnout from Blacks, and a way to appeal to those only marginally interested in politics.  The activists will be watching to determine if Hillary can deliver those voters to the polls.  The hope obviously is to generate excitement about voting for another "historic first" like the unique selling point of Obama 2008.  But what if Hillary's appeal is limited to bitter and badly aging boomer women?  

Hillary is in an awkward political position for 2016.  She is a Southern populist type by marriage but closer to a cold fish like Dukakis by dint of her personality.  Like LBJ she not only has an aura of being both vulgar and untrustworthy, she also is feared but not loved by many within her own party.  Then there is how she seems old, tired, stale and uninspiring to those looking for something new after two terms of Obama.  Given these problems and the presence on the sidelines of someone the activist simply adore, what happens if she slips even a little?  As former Governor O'Malley has noted: 

History is full of examples where the inevitable frontrunner was inevitable right up until she was no longer or he was no longer inevitable.

No one ever doubted that Bobby Kennedy wanted to be President.  It was just a question of whether he thought he could beat LBJ for the 1968 nomination and then go on to win the general election after ripping the Democratic Party apart. Before Gene McCarthy bloodied Johnson's nose, Bobby didn't think it was possible. He moved fast once McCarthy showed him LBJ was more vulnerable than expected.

 A lot of Democrats certainly seem to want Elizabeth Warren as their nominee.  Is there a level in the polls or a one-cringe-too-many gaffe on the campaign trail by Hillary at which point Warren decides that Hillary is so weak that she can be taken out of the race without the risk of too much residual damage lingering around the general election? 

It will certainly be interesting to watch.