August 28, 2015
Time for a slight side-step from our path down the ladder of presidential politicians in our search for where Hillary Clinton, circa 2016 fits. Part One covered the modern champions, Part Two the modern winners. Part Three was the best of the worst and the worst of the best.
Part Five will cover average to bad candidates who won nominations. Part Six will cover those who did not make it to the fall campaign and didn’t deserve to. Before we get there, it’s time to look at two groups who don’t belong anywhere else.
Great Nominee, Terrible Standard-Bearer
Usually, if you do a great job in the primaries, you’re at least an adequate politician after the convention. Not these two.
In the meanwhile, the 1968 Democratic nomination contest was unprecedented, and a couple of the key participants aren’t measurable on our normal system. Don’t want to leave these important individuals out.
Up through 1960, nominations worked one way. Then between 1964 and 1972 the two above groups were contributors to and sometimes victims of a rapidly changing system. From 1976 forward, candidates have followed or run from the precedents set by these outliers.
Great Nominee, Terrible Standard-Bearer (1948-Present)
If you play the association game (and I did in a recent piece about Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders), Barry Goldwater and/or George McGovern equal failure. They’re the political version of the 0-14 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. When coach John McKay, was asked about his team’s “execution” said he was “in favor of it.”
These are the respective Never Again candidacies of each party.
That’s not fair to the memory of either and potentially misleading to decision-makers and voters going forward, particularly Goldwater’s example. The candidates were more like a team that is great in the regular season (primaries) and ill suited for the playoffs (general election). Let’s see how.
Barry Goldwater (1964) 28.5 points
He got destroyed in November. As the story goes, a reporter, after hearing the candidate’s entire convention speech said “my god, he’s going to run as Barry Goldwater!” He ran as himself and many voters ran away.
Ok, we know this. We also know that with somewhat softer tones, Ronald Reagan did very well on a similar platform. Goldwater had the problem of timing (LBJ was virtually unbeatable in 1964) and delivery.
At the same time, whatever his flaws as a vessel, Goldwater is more responsible than any other candidate for setting the foundation for conservatives within the modern Republican Party.
After Robert A. Taft missed out on the 1952 nomination, old-school conservatism was at a dead end. Meanwhile, as the Eisenhower Era slowed, but did not stop or reverse the New Deal, some on the right seethed.
Unfortunately, beyond the extremist John Birch Society, there were few outlets. Beginning with his 1960 book Conscience of a Conservative, and continuing with his reliance on College Republicans to help him build his campaign, under the guidance of Clif White, Goldwater provided an alternative direction.
When the recently divorced Nelson Rockefeller hesitated to run, and Richard Nixon eliminated himself from consideration after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election, the field was clear for Barry.
Even without strong competition, the Eastern establishment was not on board, and attempted to find any possible option to block him. They couldn’t. Goldwater and his allies started early and controlled the delegate apparatus.
For overthrowing the party leadership and finding a new message conservatism, Goldwater deserves a place in the pantheon of nominees, even if he blew up in the fall.
George McGovern (1972) 27.5
His fall campaign was worse than a total embarrassment. It’s hard to decide where to start. Is it the result, losing 49 states, including his home state, most of them badly?
Perhaps you’d rather focus on his convention speech, often the moment a candidate sets the tone for the fall campaign. McGovern began the speech after 2am eastern time.
This was after choosing Senator Thomas Eagleton as his VP nominee. As you may have gathered, Team McGovern didn’t run a great convention, and they sort of forgot to vet the Veep. Seems he’d undergone electroshock therapy to deal with depression.
Today they’d have given him some Zoloft or Prozac and called it a day. Nobody would care. However, 1972 was a different time and different place, and regardless of the various substances Americans were enjoying, there’s no way to make running volts through someone’s skull sound good.
Worse still, when the word got out, McGovern temporized before finally replacing him with Kennedy in-law Sargent Shriver. McGovern did win the Kennedy homestead of Massachusetts, so perhaps Sarge helped him avoid an all-but DC sweep.
As red as the South seems now, no Democrat ever lost by larger margins in Dixie than McGovern, who lost some states Carter would win in 1976 by over 40 points.
So McGovern sucked as a general election candidate.
But he was a tremendous nomination candidate. This wasn’t exactly Bernie Sanders sweeping to the nomination, but close. Where Bernie might need to get past Hillary Clinton and the sitting VP, McGovern defeated the most recent presidential nominee (Humphrey) who was also the most recent Democratic VP, and the veep nominee from the last election (Muskie).
This was primarily accomplished by a great feat of organization. First McGovern chaired the commission that created the nomination infrastructure still used today. Second, he took proper advantage of his own rules to get past candidates who didn’t adjust as quickly.
Some talented Democrats joined the campaign. Future presidential contestant Gary Hart was the campaign manager, and McGovern’s Texas coordinator was one Bill Clinton.
While you can’t forget how poorly he ran against Nixon, McGovern created the template for other underdogs to follow to grab the nomination, focusing on getting off to a strong start in Iowa and being organized on the ground in each state.
When the incumbent president throws in the towel, and a top contender gets assassinated, it’s not a normal year. We covered Republican nominee Richard Nixon in Part Two, and Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey in Part Three, but a few others need coverage.
Lyndon Johnson (1968) incomplete
There is some conjecture over whether Harry Truman would have run for another term in 1952 if New Hampshire had shown some love.
They didn’t, so he didn’t, but at 68 years old after serving almost two full terms, with a low approval rating and the specter of Eisenhower in the fall, it’s questionable Truman would have attempted to continue regardless.
LBJ is another matter. He never officially announced a re-election campaign, but was on the ballot when he barely finished ahead of Gene McCarthy in New Hampshire (49% to 42%).
Within a few days, Johnson announced to the country he was not a candidate for another term. Beyond the obvious (Vietnam), what happened here? Why didn’t LBJ fight, why wasn’t he prepared to fight?
This is all conjecture, but Johnson had a previous record of being unprepared to contest a nomination. In 1956, LBJ was very interested in the presidency, but as a Southerner and recent heart-attack victim (his was worse than Ike’s), he demurred.
1960 was as good an opportunity as he would have to compete. Having passed on signing the Southern Manifesto (it was what it sounds like) and helping to pass a (weakened) civil rights bill in 1957, LBJ was not just another bigoted Southern Democrat.
As a very well respected Senate Majority Leader (some consider him the most effective in American history), Johnson had clout around the country in a time where nominations were settled at the convention.
Yet LBJ dithered. While Kennedy spent years preparing for his run, flying around the country, giving speeches, campaigning for other Democrats and building a nationwide organization, Johnson focused on his senate responsibilities.
By the time he actively pursued delegates in the run-up to the convention, having avoided open primaries and caucuses, it was too late to stop the JFK locomotive, and LBJ had to settle for Veep.
In 1964, he was unopposed for the nomination and went all out against Goldwater in the fall. No delay, no regrets.
Not only did Johnson have to worry about McCarthy embarrassing him, there was also the Ghost of Camelot in the person of Bobby Kennedy. Though he waited to declare until LBJ abdicated, Johnson knew Kennedy wanted to challenge him.
RFK was against the war and they were mortal enemies. Though Johmson often ran bravely in his career as the upstart or underdog, defeating popular Texas Governor Coke Stevenson in the 1948 senate primary (yes, he stole the election–it was such a well-known event that fellow senators greeted him as Landslide Lyndon when he took office–but he needed to get close in order to swipe the 87 vote victory), losing as a sitting president was another matter.
Basically, Johnson was worried about Bobby, didn’t commit to campaigning against McCarthy and wound up exiting. Had Johnson gone all out, he would have won by a larger margin, and it would have looked more like Pat Buchanan against Bush 41 in 1992.
Vietnam clearly weakened him, but indecision ultimately drove Johnson from the nomination fight.
Robert F. Kennedy (1968) incomplete
Measuring someone who campaigned for two months before getting killed is not easy. The ’68 Kennedy campaign is a favorite counterfactual for many a historian or aging boomer journalist.
We’ll never know what would have happened if Kennedy hasn’t walked through the kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel after giving his California primary victory speech.
But no harm in guessing or speculating.
Under the 1972 rules, Kennedy could have racked up plenty of delegates in open primaries and caucuses, assuming he’d declared a bit sooner to get on state ballots in time. As such, he couldn’t have waited on LBJ to opt out either.
Though he got quite a lot of criticism for it, allowing McCarthy to act as a stalking horse was smart. Had Kennedy entrered the New Hampshire primary, it’s possible they would have divided the anti-war, anti LBJ vote.
Almost losing to McCarthy got LBJ out, had he finished a little ahead of Kennedy it would have strengthened him instead of weakening. Nothing for RFK to gain, plenty to lose, and when Johnson took leave it gave him the chance to compete with McCarthy in primaries before dealing with Hubert Humphrey at the convention.
That’s the part that could have stopped him anyway. Even with Kennedy buried at Arlington Cemetery, Humphrey’s selection divided the Party. However, it’s far from certain RFK would have triumphed in the last smoke-filled room convention. Johnson still controlled the levers.
A decent comparison is the Republican fight of 1912. Incumbent William Howard Taft was unpopular and considered a poor politician. Ex-President Theodore Roosevelt was extremely popular, though not with many Party insiders.
He won the available open primaries. Taft won the nomination rather easily. If Teddy couldn’t beat Taft, it’s questionable if Kennedy could have defeated Humphrey with LBJ doing everything in his power to stop him.
The other issue was RFK’s lack of attention to security. This isn’t normally a major campaign calculation, but the brother of president slain in a motorcade participated in a bunch of open car campaigning with very minimal security support.
If Sirhan Sirhan hadn’t found him in the kitchen, somebody else would have somewhere. Not only is it unlikely RFK would have won the delegate battle in Chicago, it’s somewhat doubtful he would have made it there alive, even had he survived Los Angeles.
Eugene McCarthy (1968) 25.5 points
No other candidate toppled a sitting president (Estes Kefauver tipped Truman lightly over the edge in 1952), so why doesn’t McCarthy rank higher?
Not only that, when he bested Bobby Kennedy in Oregon, it was the first time any Kennedy lost an election (JFK was undefeated, and RFK won earlier primaries and his senate race).
Well, Gene McCarthy had his pros and cons as a candidate. He was effectively a cross between Bernie Sanders and Howard Dean. The Bernie part was diving in when it seemed quixotic. Instead of Dean’s minions with beanies, Clean Gene sent freshly shaved and well-groomed college kids out to knock on doors.
Given how anti-war college students tended to look in the winter of 1968, this was an accomplishment. Not only did McCarthy decide to run as a protest candidate, but he was one of the first to very effectively organize a primary state as an insurgent candidate.
He also didn’t give up when Bobby decided to come out and play and put up a legit fight. All of that is impressive, and McCarthy was certainly an effective candidate, he just wasn’t successful.
He neither won the nomination in 1968, nor made himself a front-runner or strong contender for 1972. McCarthy wasn’t even able to ensure Democrats ran on an anti-war platform in 1968 (not likely with LBJ still in the White House).
In the end, not enough result to wind up as more than a long footnote and inspiration for future candidates who would build on McCarthy’s organization model. When Barack Obama got nominated, to some extent he was standing on Gene’s shoulders.