After Historic Michigan Win, is Bernie Now “Electable”?

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Professor Kathy Donohue says Democrats are making a dangerous mistake by ignoring the lessons of 1968

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Throughout the Democratic presidential primary, particularly with Bernie Sanders winning the Michigan primary on Tuesday, a significant theme continues concerning Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The idea centers on the notion of electability, most media pundits concluding that Clinton has a far better chance of victory in a general election. The failed campaign of highly liberal Democratic nominee George McGovern is often cited as the historical example to support this line of argument.

In a Salon piece titled Democrats Have Their History Wrong and Are About to Make a Grievous Mistake, our next guest asserts that this comparison is wrong. Instead, author Kathy Donohue points to the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 as a more useful analogy to the 2016 Democratic primary race.

Joining us now to explain all of that is Kathy Donohue. She is a professor of history and director of the graduate studies at Central Michigan’s university, and the author of Freedom From Want: Modern American Liberalism and the Idea of the Consumer. Kathy, thank you so much for joining us today.

KATHY DONOHUE: Thank you for having me.

PERIES: So, Kathy, before we dig into our article that we are about to discuss, you are in Michigan, so let me first ask you about the results. Last night, Bernie Sanders finished ahead of Hillary, a highly unexpected result, since she was leading in the polls. Explain what happened.

DONOHUE: Well, actually, as I’m sure you know, it was an historic moment. It is the largest turnaround in terms of what the polls were saying, and what actually happened in the history of primaries. So this was really quite an event. And the fact that he won, of course, makes a big difference because this certainly adds to a narrative.

And that I do think has been part of the Sanders campaign’s problem, that there has been this aura of inevitability around Hillary, and Bernie is now in a position where he might be able to change that story. And if he can change that story I think he’s going to actually do quite well. The map [inaud.] changes for him–I’m sorry.

PERIES: And this point about him not being electable has really permeated. I mean, this is, I think, largely what the African-American community is riding on in terms of that Bernie might be good for African-Americans, but she’s more electable against a Donald Trump. But does this win in Michigan make Bernie electable?

DONOHUE: When you look at the states that she’s won, she’s won a number of states that are Southern states. Those states are not going to vote for a Democratic candidate. He is winning the states that have to be won, states like Minnesota, states like Michigan, coming in awfully close in Massachusetts. So he is a candidate who, I would argue, is actually far more electable.

But I’m not the only one arguing that. All one has to do is look at the polls. And I know it’s early days and I know that polls can change a lot. But his favorabilities are a lot higher than hers. In fact, no candidate with her unfavorable levels has ever won the presidency. And at the same time, in the head-to-head matchups, he’s beating Republicans. And the only one she beats is Trump, and by very, very little, within the margin of error.

So this electability argument, I think it’s partly due to the superdelegates issue, namely that Hillary and a lot of the media are counting those superdelegates. But as you well know, those superdelegates are going to be free to change their mind, and in fact often do, [inaud.] 2008.

PERIES: Absolutely. Even I, looking at the New York Times polling, as well as when you look at the actual delegates and how it’s represented in most mainstream media, we’re looking at the superdelegates and the conventional delegates that’s going to be at the convention, all looking like she’s so ahead, Hillary in this case, that there’s no way Bernie Sanders could catch up.

Now, why is media representing it like this?

DONOHUE: Well, I think that the argument is that the media really wants Hillary to win. Hillary’s an establishment candidate, and at the same time the media is by and large an establishment media. And so I do think that there is a real desire on the part of the establishment media to have her win.

But I think it might even be a little bit more than that. And that is certainly the inside the beltway piece. I’ve lived in Washington, DC, I’ve taught in Washington, DC. And there is this inside the beltway mentality that makes Washingtonians think there’s no way that we are going to get much of America voting for someone as quote-unquote “radical” as Bernie Sanders. And it was in fact that idea that got me writing the piece, that I think that they’re reading history wrong, that this idea of Bernie being too radical is actually off-target.

PERIES: That’s a great segue into our part two with you, so join me again, please.

Part 2

PERIES: Welcome back. I’m speaking with Kathy Donohue. She’s a professor of history and a director of graduate studies at Central Michigan University, and the author of Freedom From Want: Modern American Liberalism and the Idea of the Consumer. Kathy, thanks for joining us again.

DONOHUE: Thank you.

PERIES: Kathy, let’s dig into your article in Salon. Eugene McCarthy, not to be confused with Joseph McCarthy, of course, who is often referred to as the McCarthy era, which was one of the most repressive periods in American history. But here you’re talking about Eugene McCarthy. And why is he so important in the 2016 Democratic primary process?

DONOHUE: To me there’s some really striking parallels between Eugene McCarthy’s run for the presidency and what we’re seeing now. In early 1968, the U.S. was still in the middle of the Vietnam war, and the candidates–the clear Democratic candidate, basically the candidate who had all the inevitability, was Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson had won the 1964 election with one of the great landslide victories in the 20th century. And so no one was going to go up against him.

But Eugene McCarthy looked at the war and he looked at Johnson, and he thought, we need somebody in this race who is committed to doing something about this war, to ending this war. And so McCarthy entered very much as a protest candidate, you could call him. A candidate who was committed to basically starting a conversation about this, this war in Southeast Asia. He heads to New Hampshire, as continues to be the case at the beginning of the nomination process. And he has totally electrified young people. Young people love Eugene McCarthy, and in fact the saying at the time was that young people got clean with Gene, because we’re looking at the ’60s, we’re looking at hippies, bellbottom jeans, the whole deal. And young people [inaud.] to shave off their beards, to cut their hair. Young women put on skirts, and they went door-to-door in New Hampshire.

And it was a complete upset. A complete surprise. McCarthy came out of New Hampshire with 20 out of the 24 delegates. And all of a sudden, a candidate who was supposed to waltz his way into a second term was just not going to–a second complete term, I should say–was just not going to do that quite as easily.

PERIES: So this 1968 election cycle, which features, actually, a conservative candidate that gives out vague policy prescriptions and promised a return to law and order, talk about the similarities between, say, such a campaign and, I guess, the Trump-Nixon comparison here.

DONOHUE: Yeah, Nixon was the candidate who was promising law and order. He was promising, you know, to crack down on these young people who were protesting in the streets. He was promising to bring America to, as he saw it, a much more stable society. So he was not at all happy with the rising protests that were going on. He wasn’t happy with the civil rights movement, and with African-American civil rights activists demanding change. And so he actually played with these images. In his TV ads he would have shots of campuses with protests on them, or race riots in inner cities, and these shots actually then struck large portions of the population as basically defining what was wrong with the U.S. at this point.

So we have the Republicans on the right, and Nixon basically heading without too much opposition to the Republican nomination, and then on the Democratic side we have Johnson and we also have McCarthy, and then Bobby Kennedy enters on the Democratic side. And this is sort of an interesting piece, because Bobby Kennedy knew he wanted to run for president, and Bobby Kennedy was going to wait until 1972. He was so convinced that Johnson had this whole thing wrapped up that he wasn’t even thinking about running in ’68. But when Eugene McCarthy wins New Hampshire, all of a sudden all bets are off. All of a sudden we’ve got a horse race, and Bobby Kennedy jumps in. And then he and Eugene McCarthy battle their way in the primary, battling for delegates the entire way.

Johnson sees this. Johnson all of a sudden sees the writing on the wall, and a couple weeks later he pulls out of the race. He’s not going to run for president. Huge upset, totally unexpected. They need an establishment candidate, and at that time his vice president Hubert Humphrey was willing to pick up Johnson’s mantle, defend his Vietnam policies, and continue his road to the White House.

But Hubert Humphrey does it in a different way. Hubert Humphrey is not going to go to primaries. At this time, primaries are not binding. You can go to primaries, you can get your delegates that way. But the majority of states had a system whereby people got their delegates from the party elite in each of these states. And so Humphrey takes the road of talking to party elites and collecting his delegates that way, and ends up with a majority when he gets to the convention in Chicago.

PERIES: Now, Kathy, much of the polling shows that Bernie Sanders has a better chance of winning against candidate Trump in the general election. How does this fit into your example?

DONOHUE: Well, what ends up happening at the convention is that basically the party elite, political figures from Congress, from cities, et cetera, union leaders, unions were leaning towards Humphrey and not towards McCarthy. And so what happens at the national convention is they basically give the nomination to Hubert Humphrey.

And for me what this really, the warning bell, shall I say, that this really set off were what was the whole issue of the superdelegates. Because Humphrey, as you know, goes on to lose that election. And it’s very, very close. It’s very close. And so that certainly is fair to say. But what the party elite does is they choose the establishment candidate over this insurgent candidate who had galvanized students, who had created a lot of energy in the campaign.

And so what I saw with ’68 was that the lesson was you’ve got to be really, really careful about ignoring the desires of the voters. That if you think someone’s electable because you are a political expert, you might be wrong. The voters might have other ideas. And I think we’re seeing that here. You know, all the experts thought Hillary was going to win last night, and nobody expected Bernie to win, and he did. He did.

PERIES: Now, Kathy, there’s also the 1972 example where there’s a lot to learn from. Tell us more about that.

DONOHUE: Well, in 1972 as you know, the Democrats ran George McGovern. And George McGovern was resoundingly defeated. And Democrats from then on have looked back and said, there’s a lesson here. We cannot nominate anybody who’s too radical, the American people will reject them.

I think that’s wrong in a lot of ways. First of all, Nixon was incredibly strong in 1972. The economy was doing better, the war was winding down, and he also had already begun detente. The whole Cold War was winding down. He had gone to China, he had gone to Russia. He was a very strong candidate. And I think that that is ignored when people look at McGovern.

But I think the other point here is that it wasn’t that McGovern was too radical, it was that McGovern was out of step. Because by 1972, even as early as 1968, we are seeing one of those historical shifts that happens in American politics about every 30-40 years. We saw one in the New Deal, when the country went from being very Republican to electing Franklin Roosevelt, and went into what was known as the New Deal era, and then we saw it again in ’68-’72, when the nation moves to the right. And so the mistake was not that they nominated someone who was too radical, but that they nominated someone who was too radical for the time period.

McGovern was just a candidate who was out of step in 1972. And that, as well as Nixon’s strength, accounts for his defeat, which is why I point to 1968 rather than 1972 as the election that Democrats really need to look at if they want to use history as a guide to how to proceed.

PERIES: Kathy Donohue, I thank you so much for joining us today.

DONOHUE: My pleasure, thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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