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
Latest Research from:
By Ed Kilgore
This year’s big media narrative has been the confirmation saga of Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget. At New York I wrote about how over-heated the talk surrounding Tanden has become.
Okay, folks, this is getting ridiculous. When a vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the nomination of Neera Tanden was postponed earlier this week, you would have thought it presented an existential threat to the Biden presidency. “Scrutiny over Tanden’s selection has continued to build as the story over her uneven reception on Capitol Hill stretched through the week,” said one Washington Post story. Politico Playbook suggested that if Tanden didn’t recover, the brouhaha “has the potential to be what Biden might call a BFD.” There’s been all sorts of unintentionally funny speculation about whether the White House is playing some sort of “three-dimensional chess” in its handling of the confirmation, disguising a nefarious plan B or C.
Perhaps it reflects the law of supply and demand, which requires the inflation of any bit of trouble for Biden into a crisis. After all, his Cabinet nominees have been approved by the Senate with a minimum of 56 votes; the second-lowest level of support was 64 votes. One nominee who was the subject of all sorts of initial shrieking, Tom Vilsack, was confirmed with 92 Senate votes. Meanwhile, Congress is on track to approve the largest package of legislation moved by any president since at least the Reagan budget of 1981, with a lot of the work on it being conducted quietly in both chambers. Maybe if the bill hits some sort of roadblock, or if Republican fury at HHS nominee Xavier Becerra (whose confirmation has predictably become the big fundraising and mobilization vehicle for the GOP’s very loud anti-abortion constituency) reaches a certain decibel level, Tanden can get out of the spotlight for a bit.
But what’s really unfair — and beyond that, surreal — is the extent to which this confirmation is being treated as more important than all the others combined, or indeed, as a make-or-break moment for a presidency that has barely begun. It’s not. If Tanden cannot get confirmed, the Biden administration won’t miss a beat, and I am reasonably sure she will still have a distinguished future in public affairs (though perhaps one without much of a social-media presence). And if she is confirmed, we’ll all forget about the brouhaha and begin focusing on how she does the job, which she is, by all accounts, qualified to perform.