Contemporary liberals have (at least) two great nostalgic longings. The first, to be transported back in time to August 1964, to cast a vote against the Tonkin Gulf resolution that authorized LBJ to escalate the Vietnam War. (Remember, even George McGovern voted for the resolution, though he later claimed that he immediately regretted it.) Thirty-seven years later, most liberals (including today’s leading McGovernite, John Kerry) voted in favor of the Iraq War resolution, a fact that fuels their fury over the war now that it is less popular.
The second great longing is for the Bobby Kennedy campaign—and presidency—that might have been. It was not just the Kennedy mystique and charisma that drove this extreme sentimentality. Just as significant was the advent of the supposed “New Politics,” of which Bobby was a supposed avatar. Now, just what was the “New Politics”? Good question. There appears this useful passage in An American Melodrama, the single best book written on the 1968 campaign by the trio of Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson, and Bruce Page (this account is leagues better than any of Teddy White’s Making of the President series—get it if you see it second hand somewhere):
Every year in the United States there is a new Ford, a new Chevrolet, a new Chrysler, and a New Negro. At less frequent intervals, a New Woman, a New Child Psychology, and a New South make regular appearances. At the beginning of 1968, New Politics were in the air. Politicians talked about them. Journalists wrote about them. Pundits and academicians cranked themselves up to talk about them. The only trouble was that nobody agreed on what they meant.
One is tempted to suggest the “New Politics” is like the New Coke—a gimmick destined to give way to the sensible old way of doing things after a momentary and insubstantial enthusiasm. In the 1960s, Chester, Hodgson, and Lewis write, the New Politics meant two things above all: “One is that appeals should be made directly to the voters through the mass media.” Today that would mean the Internet. Second, New Politics meant “the politics of ordinary people who are fed up with the superficial and hypocritical politics of the two major parties.”
But are either of these really unique or “new” in any profound sense? New media, such as radio in the 1920s and 1930s, television in the 1950s, and direct mail in the 1960s and 1970s, always affected political campaigns. And is not the “fed-upness” of voters to be expected in a nation of close partisan division where more and more of our social life is politicized, not to mention the normal cycle of disappointment in democratic politics? (And remember that “the personal is political” might also be said to be a product of the 1960s New Politics, at least for the leftmost part of the political spectrum.)
The New Politics always comes around again every few election cycles, though not always by the same name. We saw it with Gary Hart’s explicit generational appeal in 1984; we saw it after a fashion with Ross Perot’s appeal to the “angry middle” of disaffected voters in 1992, and we are seeing it now with Barack Obama (who is a two-fer, since he also qualifies as a “New Negro,” if you’ll pardon the archaic usage). The comparison of Obama and RFK has been explicitly made for months now, as has his generic post-boomer theme of transcending partisan differences. It is a simple matter to predict that this aspect of Obama’s candidacy will come to nought, as did Hart and Perot before him, and as RFK’s surely would have had he lived.
But the real historical comparison taking shape these days may be with Hillary and . . . Al Smith! My thesis is simple: Hillary is going to become the Al Smith of our age: an inevitable nominee, and a sure loser for similar reasons to Smith in 1928. It is not just that a woman president is likely unacceptable to a decisive portion of the swing vote (which will be loathe to admit this to pollsters), but also that she is just too emblematic of the Deep Blueness of the blue states in a way that her husband was able to conceal successfully.
These thoughts came to mind as I was reading a 1925 essay on Smith by Walter Lippmann, in which he judged:
The availability of Al Smith is glaring, indisputable, overwhelming. And yet he is unavailable. By the unspoken and unwritten law of the United States, as it stands today, he cannot be nominated by any national party.
Lippmann was wrong about this judgment, of course, but his broader analysis is correct on why Smith couldn’t win the presidency. The parallels aren’t exact, but close enough to prompt some reflection:
One cannot say that the new urban civilization which is pushing Al Smith forward into national affairs is better or worse than the older American civilization of town and country which dreads him and will resist him. But one can say that they do not understand each other, and that neither has yet learned that to live it must let live. The conflict is an inevitable consequence of our history. It seems, however, to be the fate of this genial man to deepen that conflict and to hasten it, and to make us face the conflict sooner than we are ready. . . The Ku Kluxers may talk about the Pope to the lunatic fringe, but the main mass of opposition is governed by an instinct that to accept Al Smith is to certify and sanctify a way of life that does not belong to the America they love. Here is not trivial conflict.
Maybe this all means that in another generation, we’ll be observing "AL Smith/Hillary Clinton" dinners, with an ecumenical Catholic/Methodist clergy presiding.