Monday 26 May 2008

Talking Point: 1968 Redux?

In the first of an occasional series of talking points, we ask: is it 1968 all over again?

Are we seeing the makings of a re-run of history in the US election, as the Democratic primaries spin out, seemingly endlessly, with Barack Obama getting close to the finish line but Hillary Clinton clinging on to the bitter end? The answer could depend on Hillary Clinton. If, as looks increasingly likely, Barack Obama is chosen as the Democratic Party's Presidential candidate, will Hillary Clinton accept or will she decide to carry on anyway and maybe even go it alone?

That would make it a three horse race, just like back in 1968. Then, Nixon was standing for the Republicans, Hubert Humphrey (Lyndon Johnson's Vice President, a liberal, and a strong advocate of civil rights) for the Democrats, and the leftfield (actually more like hard-rightfield) candidate George Wallace stood as an independent.

The election proved tight. Remember that Nixon had stood once before, and narrowly lost, back in 1960 when the Democrat John F. Kennedy became President. In 1968, the election was another tight race in terms of the popular vote with Nixon winning only 43% to Humphrey's 42% (although the electoral college vote was more decisive). The surprise quantity was George Wallace who netted 13% of the popular vote with his pro-segragation, anti-civil rights campaign.

The important thing was that Wallace took a whole heap of votes from Humphrey, and here's where we end up right back in 2008: the votes Wallace took were those of the blue collar Americans that Hillary went out campaigning for the support of in the past few primaries - conservative and, could we say, less than progressive when it comes to matters of racial equality.

A lesson of '68, then, was that blue-collar white voters who might otherwise go Democrat could be wooed away by a candidate who spoke to whites' fears about race. And there have been other occasions when this happened: these are the same folk who became so-called "Reagan Democrats" back in 1980, that time being gobbled up by the Republican Party (traditionally the party of business, not the working class).

So what if Hillary clings on and on? Will she quit the race even if Obama gets the Democratic Party nomination or will she make a run as an independent? And, if so, would she pursue the same course she's been on of late, and chase those "Reagan Democrats"? Is Hillary Clinton to become the new George Wallace, splitting the Democratic Party vote? We'll have to wait and see. Maybe in the end the two Democratic frontrunners will patch things up and cut a deal. Who knows, we might even be looking at a future President and VP combo - but on their form that would look to be a potentially stormy political relationship!

We're not the only ones looking backwards: Newsday and the New York Times are at it as well, since Hillary's recent comments about the assassination of Robert Kennedy have caused something of a stir.

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