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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

From Adlai To Gene To Dean

I don’t have a lot to add to the appraisals of Eugene McCarthy–who died this weekend–being offered by others, but do want to riff on a theme suggested by former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet over at The New Republic‘s site.Kusnet usefully focuses on McCarthy’s real breakthrough moment in national Democratic politics, his fiery nominating speech for Adlai Stevenson at the 1960 convention in Los Angeles. This now-forgotten incident was at the time a very big deal: as Teddy White explained in The Making of the President 1960, the draft-Stevenson movement, underscored by a very noisy demonstration of activists around the convention site, was momentarily a threat to the pre-ordained nomination of John F. Kennedy.But while Kusnet focuses on the temperamental aspects of the tradition that linked Adlai and McCarthy to such later liberal activist heroes as Mo Udall and Bill Bradley–candidates who sometimes conveyed the sense they were too good to actually win–I think there’s a more obvious strain that runs from Stevenson to McCarthy to McGovern to Gary Hart to Paul Tsongas to Howard Dean (and could include Russ Feingold if he emerges as a major candidate in 2008). It’s a tradition of candidates who expanded the Democratic appeal into previously Republican or independent upscale professional territory, but at the risk of losing touch with the old Democratic coalition of working-class and minority voters.For those of you who tend to think this trend began much more recently, it’s sobering to recall that the term “egghead” was first popularized as an anti-intellectual slur against Stevenson supporters in 1952. And each of “Adlai’s children” in later Democratic candidacies drew his signature support from social and economic elites determined to overthrow some aspect of mass culture or politics, from Stevenson’s implicit attacks on the philistinism of Ike’s America, to McCarthy’s ironically detached refusal to play “politics as usual,” to McGovern and Hart’s crystallization of discontent with old-line Democratic “machine” politics, to Tsongas’ mix of social liberalism and economic conservatism, to Dean’s antiwar-fed revolt against the Washington Democratic Establishment.All these candidates struggled, to one degree or another, to attract much support from blue-collar and minority voters, though arguably they might have pulled together a broader coalition if they had actually won the nomination (the one who did, George McGovern, performed credibly among minority voters but lost catastrophically among union households). Before you hit the button to send me a nasty email about lumping Howard Dean together with “Adlai’s Children,” we obviously don’t know how a Dean general election campaign might have fared, though the disproportionately upscale and non-minority nature of his original movement was beyond dispute, and a source of much hand-wringing among Deaniacs at the time.Ironically, it was probably McCarthy’s great rival, Robert F. Kennedy, who offered the best potential fusion of a New Politics appeal that attracted New Class voters, while keeping together the traditional Democratic coalition. After all, RFK’s primary campaign of 1968 did indeed draw a mind-boggling coalition from Wallacites to lunch-bucket ethnics to African-Americans and Latinos. But it’s worth remembering that RFK’s popularity among liberal intellectuals and anti-war professionals was much higher after his assassination than when he was an actual candidate (when he ran for the Senate in 1964, virtually the entire Manhattan liberal intelligentsia endorsed his Republican rival).On purely empirical grounds, Bill Clinton in 1996 and Al Gore in 2000 have been the two nominees who were best able to consolidate upscale support while hanging onto much if hardly all of the old coalition. And Kerry did as well as Gore among highly educated voters, while losing more at the other end of the spectrum.Gene McCarthy, a temperamentally conservative man much more likely to quote Thomas Aquinas than Thomas Jefferson, was hardly the ideal fusion candidate. And a lot’s changed, politically and demographically, since 1968. But the challenge of adding to the coalition without subtracting from it elsewhere remains.

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