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.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.