THE DEMOCRATS' DILEMMA:
There is less to the Party's
Who in 1976--Kennedy, Wallace, or Senator Bland? Watergate haunts the
opposition, and the Democrats have healed many of the wounds of '68 and
'72, but what does the Democratic party really stand for? That very much
remains to be seen, says one of the country's most respected political
by David S. Broder
The most puzzling aspect of the Democratic Party today is its tendency to
alternating fits of neurotic gloom and unjustified euphoria. With few
exceptions, the party's leading figures are convinced that their enemies
(always defined as Democrats of another faction) are about to succeed in
cutting the party's throat just as it is ready--to mix the metaphor--to
turn the corner toward victory. In any ten-minute conversation, you are
likely to hear it affirmed that a Democrat is certain to succeed Richard
Nixon in the White House in 1976--except for the unfortunate likelihood of
the Democratic Party's not surviving that long.
To understand how the Democrats have talked themselves into such a state
of optimistic fatalism, or, if you prefer, buoyant pessimism, it is
necessary to grasp the central role that the experience of the 1968 and
1972 conventions has had for party leaders and active Democratic
Those conventions looked one way to the television audience and another
way to the participants. To many television viewers, they were
stupefyingly boring and endless pseudo-spectaculars, in which the
Democrats finally made the predicted decisions (nominating Humphrey in
1968 and McGovern four years later) after hours of needless confusion.
They were bad shows, to be forgotten as quickly as possible.
But to the party leaders and members present in Chicago and Miami Beach,
those conventions were places of constant bargaining and decision
making, of surging, conflicting emotions, where reputations were enhanced
or demeaned, power gained or lost, debts of gratitude incurred or promises
of vengeance sworn. The conventions, much more than the election campaigns
that followed them, were the shaping experience of today's Democratic
In the combination of myth and memory on which group attitudes are
founded, each convention had one central, defining scene. At the 1968
convention it came when the Kennedy-McCarthy delegates were gaveled into
silence as they protested the war by singing "We Shall Overcome," while
outside, police and national guardsmen gassed and clubbed those who joined
the protest in the streets.
At the 1972 convention, the scene exaggerated by memory and a hundred
conversations was the manic, post-midnight celebration of the exclusion of
Mayor Daley's Chicago delegation by the "new politics" insurgents. In the
eyes of the displaced party regulars, these long-haired youths, blacks,
Chicanos, and activist women had, by their action, consigned their own
candidate, McGovern, to defeat.
From those twin and opposing pictures--one focused on the frustrations of
the "new politics" activists and the other on the bitter anger of the "old
guard" pols--came the Democrats' overriding fear. It is not a fear that
the Republicans have grown too strong for them. Rather, it is a fear that
their antipathies to each other can no longer be contained, and that,
since coexistence is impossible, one faction or the other will seize
control and drive the loser out of the party.
The view of hundreds of Democratic leaders is that the party between now
and 1976 will be forced by its warring factions to choose as its model
either the closed-door slate-making sessions of Mayor Daley's Cook County
Democratic Committee, or the hardly less exclusionary encounter group
format of the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club of San Francisco.
This prospect, as it happens, rests on a gross misreading of the meaning
of the last two conventions. Democrats by the dozens have erroneously
discovered what they think is a historic trend in two events whose
circumstances and special causes could not be duplicated in 1976 for all
the checks in Maurice Stans's Mexican laundry. The emotional charge that
polarized the Democrats in Chicago and Miami Beach was the Vietnam War,
now ended. Nineteen sixty-eight saw one candidate shot dead and another
stopped dead by indecision before the convention was held. Nineteen
seventy-two saw the collapse of a front-runner without parallel in the
last two generations; the shooting of another candidate; and another
damaging fit of indecision--this time not by Eugene McCarthy but by George
The likelihood of any of these special factors recurring, let alone all of
them, is minimal. Nonetheless, the prevailing Democratic myth is that
either the "new politics" or the "old politics" faction will triumph and
drive the other into outer darkness.
It is this belief that explains, if anything can, the strange distortions
that have occurred in a series of battles over key positions in the party
hierarchy. Take, for example, the struggle over the national chairmanship
a month after the 1972 election. In it, Jean Westwood, McGovern's
appointed incumbent, a West Jordan, Utah, mink rancher's wife who is about
as radical as your average forest ranger, was cast in the part of a "new
politics" hellion. Her opponent, Dallas lawyer Robert S. Strauss, an
amiable, nonideological money raiser who, in his desire to be helpful and
to be liked, had assisted such "reactionary" folk as Hubert Humphrey and
Barbara Jordan (the black congresswoman from Houston), was seen by his
"new politics" adversaries as a man so evil that he had sold out
simultaneously to big oil and big labor. By the time the national
committee balloted, with Strauss winning by four and a half votes, you'd
have thought it was a contest between Angela Davis and John Connally for
control of the Democratic Party.
There is more here than just a distortion of personalities. There is a
misreading of history to prove that one faction or the other must
The view that the bosses and the backroom politicians barred the true
expression of the people at the 1968 convention is at best a half-truth.
While Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy divided the primary victories,
the polls preceding the convention showed that Humphrey (who skipped the
primaries) was the leading choice of the Democrats for the nomination. No
one can know what would have happened in Chicago had Kennedy not been shot
and had McCarthy not quit campaigning. On the day of the California
primary, Larry O'Brien was guessing privately that the odds against their
beating Humphrey for the nomination were about five to one. But whether
the convention produced a Humphrey-Kennedy ticket or a Kennedy
Somebody ticket, it is clear that the interpretation of the events and the
forces that shaped it would have been vastly different from what it
became. As it was, the insurgent forces, supposedly denied any chance for
expression, came within 263 votes of passing their platform plank on
Vietnam, and they actually prevailed on what was to become the
convention's most important by-product--the mandate for reform of the
procedures for selecting future delegates.
We will return to those rules reforms in just a moment, but first we
should note the misinterpretations of the 1972 convention experience, a
kind of mirror of the misinterpretations of 1968. That 1972 convention is
supposed to have seen the exclusion of party regulars, elected officials,
and their allies in organized labor by a band of "new politics" zealots,
who manipulated the rules from beginning to end to nominate George
McGovern. It is a comforting myth for those who lost, just as the 1968
myth was a good rationalization for the disappointed losers on the other
side. But the key to the 1972 convention result lay, not in rules
manipulations, but in two independent factors, as peculiar in their way as
the accidents that befell Kennedy and McCarthy in 1968.
One was the collapse of Edmund Muskie, the front-runner for the nomination
and the consequent derailment of the vehicle on which most of the party
regulars and elected officials had expected to ride to Miami Beach. No one
in modern political history has dissipated as many assets as rapidly as
did Muskie in the winter and spring of 1972.
The other key factor was the inability of George Meany to pick a candidate
to back in the early going. Facing a divided AFL-CIO executive board,
Meany declined to choose among Muskie, Humphrey, and Henry ("Scoop")
Jackson. Not until the California primary, when it was too late, did the
AFL-CIO come in full force behind Humphrey, and it nearly turned the
Even with the handicaps of Muskie's collapse and labor's indecision, the
"regulars" very nearly triumphed. The key vote of the convention, on the
California credentials challenge, was decided by only 173 votes--hardly
evidence that the losers had been excluded.
Now, about those rules reforms--and particularly the famous battle over
quotas. The first point to be noted is that the members of the McGovern
commission were not engaged in an academic exercise in constitution
making. They were a group of politicians assigned to solve a particular
political problem. That problem was the perceived distortion of voters
sentiments at the 1968 convention, and particularly the perceived
exclusion of certain kinds of Democrats from the proceedings. The
commission's job, in short, was to get into the next convention the people
who had been vocally complaining they had been barred from the last one-
young people, blacks, and the activist women of the peace movement. The
commission did that particular job very well. Never mind that the problem
they solved was itself at least partly counterfeit.
The second point to be noted is that the rules reforms were not foisted on
the regulars by the "new politics" sharpies. As Theodore H. White has
pointed out, the transcript of the crucial meeting of the McGovern
commission shows that the man who acknowledged he "opened Pandora's box
here" by first urging the commission to require "adequate, fair, whatever
the word might be, representation of minority groups," was Austin Ranney.
Ranney is the president-elect of the American Political Science
Association, and, like so many of its leaders, a devoted friend and
political ally through the years of fellow political scientist Hubert
Humphrey. Ranney is about as "new politics" a figure at the University of
Wisconsin as Bob Strauss is in Dallas.
Ranney's idea was endorsed--and the fateful language that minority groups
be included on delegations "in reasonable relationship to the group's
presence in the population of the states" was provided--by Senator Birch
Bayh of Indiana, an elected official and the product of one of the
tightest, toughest Democratic organizations anywhere. George McGovern's
contribution to the discussion was to remind the members that at an
earlier meeting the commission "as I recall it, unanimously decided after
some discussion that it wasn't feasible to go on record for a quota
The quota provision carried, ten to nine. Had McGovern's view prevailed,
or had the AFL-CIO representative, United Steelworkers president I. W.
Abel, ended his boycott of the commission and cast the decisive vote
against quotas, there is little doubt that the Democrats would have been
better off. Demographic quotas are objectionable in principle to many, and
are of doubtful relevance in an assemblage where it is important to
represent political views--not selected segments of population. Even the
advocates of quotas as a temporary device for overcoming historic patterns
of discrimination admit that quotas are subject to tokenist manipulation
and represent a bare first step toward genuinely open participation in the
wide range of party affairs.
But for all these shortcomings, it was not the quota system or other rules
reforms which did in the "regulars'' or nominated McGovern. Had Muskie not
collapsed, and had Meany not hesitated too long in making his choice, far
fewer party and elected officials and their labor allies would have found
themselves on the outside looking in at Miami Beach. As it was, almost
five hundred labor delegates were in Convention Hall to watch the
nomination of the one Democrat their leader would not support. As Bob
Keefe, then Meany's convention legman and now executive director of the
Democratic National Committee, has remarked, "Labor had more delegates at
the 1972 convention than ever before--and less influence."
But labor learned something from its 1972 experience. And from the moment
of McGovern's defeat, big labor has been back in the Democratic Party with
both feet, using every bit of its considerable leverage to be sure, as
Alexander Barkan, the head of the AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education
(COPE), says, that "never again are we left in a position where neither
party nominates a presidential candidate we can support."
The full story of labor's role in the Democratic Party is beyond the scope
of this report. Suffice it to say that during Meany's period of
neutrality, his rivals for leadership in the labor movement fashioned
their own alliances within the Democratic Party--particularly, Leonard
Woodcock of the independent United Auto Workers, Joe Beirne of the AFL-CIO
Communications Workers, and Jerry Wurf of the fast-growing AFL-CIO State,
County and Municipal Employees Union. Many of Strauss's worst headaches in
his first year as chairman came from the claims of rival union leaders for
the lion's share of seats on the national committee and its various
commissions. The number of hospitality suites operated by competing union
factions at any Democratic gathering of the past year has made these the
most liquid sessions since the glorious days when Happy Chandler of
Kentucky was seeking support and providing solace any place more than five
The main point to be noted is that Meany and his rivals are all operating
inside the Democratic tent. Despite the fears of some Democrats that the
AFL-CIO's neutrality in 1972 portended a permanent split, despite the
hopes of some Republican strategists that Mr. Nixon's blue-collar vote
could be parlayed into an "emerging Republican majority," labor's
leadership is more heavily involved in the Democratic Party than ever
So, too, is that other conspicuous neutral of the 1972 general election,
George Corley Wallace. Montgomery was one of Strauss's earliest stops on
his 1973 travels, and he found quick common ground with the Alabama
governor. "He told me," Strauss recalls, "that he didn't want any special
treatment from the party; he just wanted to be treated like everybody
else. And I told him his support among Democrats all over this country
entitled him to a seat at the first table; I told him I'd put him there,
but it was up to him how much of the chicken he got to eat. We understood
each other perfectly."
In practice, this agreement has meant that there's a Wallace man on the
executive committee of the Democratic National Committee, the twenty
five member body that shares power with Strauss on a continuing basis, and
Wallace representatives on each of the party commissions. The
Wallaceites--particularly young Mickey Griffin, the Governor's man on the
executive committee--have been cooperative, conciliatory, and notably
non-combative. They have not squawked much, because, as we will see in a
moment, most of the decisions made since 1972 suit Wallace's plans just
Along with the prodigal sons of labor and the Wallace movement, Strauss
has held the door open for the disaffected Democratic governors, senators,
and representatives who fled in horror from the national ticket after the
1972 convention. The governors were the principal agents in his election
as chairman, and he came to office with the public endorsement of the
Senate and House Democratic leaders as well.
These strays have been brought back to camp without those who "took over"
the party in 1972 stomping off in anger. On the contrary, the "new
politics" folks who won control of the national committee at the Miami
Beach convention are still there; they lack a majority on the national
committee now, but can still put one together, on some issues, in the more
important executive committee. They were in clear control of the most
important commission, that handling delegate selection reforms, in 1973.
Along with the discovery that the component parts of the old Democratic
coalition have learned to coexist with some comfort has come the related
revelation that the worst of the Democrats' internal problems--the "quota
system"--can be successfully negotiated.
When the successor to the McGovern commission on delegate selection, now
headed by Baltimore city councilwoman Barbara Mikulski, first met last
year, the air was thick with threats of bitter fights and predictions of
lawsuits. The losers at the 1972 convention were prepared to go all out to
break the quota system, but, surprise, it turned out that no one wanted to
defend it. McGovern was one of the first to disavow quotas, saying,
"Delegates should represent people--not types of people." He also
denounced the foolish ban on slate-making activities which had led to the
exclusion of the Daley delegation.
With those two controversies out of the way, the commission settled down
with surprising good spirit to the tough task of drafting rules that would
keep the next convention open to Democrats interested in a particular
cause or candidate, without penalizing those people seeking delegate seats
who had worked for the party for years.
In its key provisions, the commission:
(1) Banned use of quota systems, explicitly or implicitly, and instead
required that each state party adopt and implement a detailed, year-round
affirmative action plan in 1974 designed to "encourage full participation
by all Democrats, with particular concern for minority groups, native
Americans, women and youth, in delegate selection and in all party
affairs...as indicated by their presence in the Democratic electorate."
(2) Set up a semi-judicial compliance committee to appraise the adequacy
of the affirmative action plans and the performance of the states on them,
enabling obstructionists to be tagged and warned and, if necessary
disciplined, far in advance of the delegate credentials fights.
(3) Maintained the very useful 1972 reforms on timely and open delegate
selection process, but expanded the opportunity for state parties to set
aside seats for their key leaders, without granting automatic convention
votes to all elected Democratic officials.
As impressive as the balance and practicality of the new rules is the way
in which they were achieved. There was hard bargaining, and at the final
session, when the last draft was carried around for approval by Governor
John J. Gilligan of Ohio, the people he checked with gave testimony to the
continuing ability of the Democratic Party to find those new political
leaders who, in their own persons and careers, bridge the largest gaps in
our society. The principal figures in the frantic final bargaining in a
basement corridor of the Mayflower Hotel in Washington were:
* Gilligan himself, the redheaded, Irish undertaker's son and former
college English instructor who is the Democratic governor of Republican
Ohio and a representative of state Democratic officialdom.
* Richard Gordon Hatcher, the black mayor of Gary, a voice for both the
black caucus and the big city mayors, long the voting base of Democratic
* Alex Seith, a suburban political ally of Mayor Daley's, who feels as
comfortable in the backrooms of city hall as with his anti-Daley liberal
friends on the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.
* Kenneth Bode, the political scientist who was the principal idea man on
the earlier McGovern commission, a youthful embodiment of the long
tradition of Democratic action intellectuals.
* Blair Lee III, the lieutenant governor of Maryland and inheritor of a
strain of patrician liberalism that runs from Averell Harriman back to
* George Barrett, a labor lawyer from Tennessee, protective of the
interests of the South, but also, with Joe Beirne of the Communications
Workers and John Perkins of COPE, a bargaining ascent for the assorted
elements of organized labor.
* Ann Lewis, who lobbied the commission on behalf of the National Women's
Political Caucus, but salted her advice with the shrewdness of a Boston
city hall pol, which she also happens to be.
* And Barbara Mikulski herself, a politically ambitious social-worker
turned-councilwoman, sensitive both to the needs of her inner-city white
working-class constituents and her chums in the women's and civil rights
"Damn. that's good news," said Strauss, when he learned that these varied
personalities had engineered the commission's unanimous agreement on the
new delegate selection rules. And indeed it was an almost triumphant
demonstration of his oft-reiterated thesis that the Democrats "have
started to come together again." Earlier in the same week, he had
witnessed an even more singular demonstration of that togetherness, when
the leader of the black caucus on the national committee intervened to
prevent a move to throw Wallace's man, Mickey Griffin, off the executive
Strauss, a humorous, earthy fellow, was an almost unknown figure when he
won the chairmanship at the end of 1972, but his first year in office saw
a display of political dexterity well camouflaged in his previous work as
party treasurer. The new chairman is a man whose enthusiasm for his work
is exceeded only by his enthusiasm for himself. "You know why I'm going to
stay in this job?" he asked an aide one day. "'Cause there's nobody in
this country could do it better!"
He has played shrewdly on the fears of rival factions to solidify his own
position. He came to office as the candidate of the AFL-CIO, the elected
officials and the old-guard organization men against Mrs. Westwood, but
when COPE's Al Barkan denounced him for his unwillingness to purge the
"new politics" people from every position of power, Strauss turned his
former ally's enmity to advantage in building bridges with his own former
opponents. Yet in early 1974, when Ms. Kikulski excluded labor and the
regulars from her appointments to the rules compliance committee, it was
Strauss who came to their rescue, thus deepening their debt to him.
His September telethon and other fundraising ventures have pared the
party's 1968 carry-over debt and allowed a modest increase in the national
committee staff. Instead of thinking of themselves as the defeated,
divided, perhaps dying party that lost forty-nine states in 1972, Strauss
has convinced Democrats that they are on the rebound. "We're really
beginning to get this thing together," he says. "I don't take credit for
it: I just preach it and teach it." His assistant, Bob Keefe, puts it this
way: Everybody who was at each other's throat is still out there. But
almost unconsciously there has grown a genuine instinct to win."
Thanks to Watergate and attendant disasters, the triumphant President of
1972 and the Republican Party are badly on the defensive. Spiro Agnew is
disgraced. Republican fund raisers are surfeited with scandals, morale is
low. While Strauss and others fear that Gerald Ford might be hard to beat
in 1976 if he succeeds to the presidency before that, Democrats look
forward to a big midterm victory this November and expect, as Strauss
says, to use the December midterm conference "to launch us on the right
foot for the White House." That euphoria is even less justified than the
fears of the party's dissolution.
As one turns from analysis to projection of the Democrats' situation,
there is need for a more cautious tone, but at several levels the problems
facing the party--the real problems, not the bogey fears of dissolution we
have been discussing until now--seem even more severe than surface
impressions would suggest.
To start with the most obvious, the Democrats have serious candidate
problems, not in 1974, when their congressional and gubernatorial
incumbents seem to be in good shape and a large group of fledgling
candidates is ready for battle, but in 1976. According to the polls,
Senator Edward M. Kennedy is the leading choice of Democratic voters for
the nomination, but his availability is problematical. Preoccupied with a
seemingly unending skein of personal and family problems, threatened with
violence by the anonymous letter-writers who vow vengeance for Mary Jo
Kopechne, haunted by God knows what nightmares, Kennedy does not fit any
of the most obvious outlines of the man most Democratic officeholders
would choose to head their ticket.
Many of his Senate colleagues think that his performance as a legislator
has been on a downward curve, with fewer bursts of activity and longer
intervals of distraction since Chappaquiddick and the loss of the whip's
post. Fond as many are of him personally, they search in vain for the
signs of growth and development they seek in a potential President.
But whatever their questions about him, whatever their concerns about the
personal risks to him and the political risks to them if he is the nominee
in 1976, there is a sense of inevitability in Democratic circles about
Kennedy. Whether he can be elected or not, few doubt he will win the
nomination if he seeks it. With his name, his associations, and his skill
at campaigning, there is simply no person or combination of people inside
the party who can generate the energy and enthusiasm that Kennedy can whip
up if he follows his brothers' trail through the New Hampshire, Wisconsin,
Nebraska, and California primaries.
The problem he poses can be seen most clearly through the eyes of the most
active of the current contenders for the nomination, Scoop Jackson.
Jackson has worked hard for the past eighteen months to build a base for
1976 among the leaders of organized labor, the party's Jewish
contributors, and the officeholders and organization men. Yet the
suspicion of even some of Jackson's own supporters is that Kennedy would
blow him out of the race in about three primaries, very much the way he
overshadowed Jackson in their back-to-back appearances before the last
AFL-CIO convention in Miami Beach. Jackson was solid, sensible, and
ponderous--and received polite applause. Kennedy was dynamic and slightly
demagogic, and could have been carried out on the delegates' shoulders.
Notwithstanding the difference the Senate sees in their capabilities,
primaries reward campaigners--and Kennedy has no match as a campaigner.
What is true of Jackson is even truer of the other possible Senate
candidates. few of whom might actually challenge if Kennedy enters the
race, and all of whom are overshadowed as long as he remains a possible
If Kennedy does not run--which is certainly a good possibility--then the
Democrats will have a potentially sizable field of senators--Jackson,
Muskie, McGovern, Humphrey, Walter F. Mondale, Lloyd Bentsen, and Birch
Bayh--each giving a slightly different version of the traditional
Democratic sermon in a manner dulled by repetition of regurgitated
And they will also have George Wallace, health permitting, which it does
today. And therein lies a problem for which the Democrats lack an answer.
If Kennedy does not run, is there anyone in the party that can head off
Wallace from romping through the primaries as he did in Florida, North
Carolina, Tennessee, Michigan, and Maryland in 1972? Even from a
wheelchair, Wallace can probably outcampaign any of the Democrats but
Kennedy, and this time, unlike 1972, he has Mickey Griffin to tell him how
to play the nominating game under the parties rules.
In 1972, incredible as it may seem, Wallace literally did not understand
how to get delegates at the national convention. He won preference
primaries where he had no delegates entered, and thus was deprived of
votes: he failed to meet some filing deadlines for other primaries he
might have won. Not until the Texas convention in June, almost at the end
of the trail, did he mobilize any effort to win delegates from nonprimary
states where a rich horde was available to him.
This time, Wallace knows the rules, and the rules, as rewritten, are
designed for his convenience--not intentionally, of course, but in fact.
The way in which this has occurred demonstrates again just how
unpredictable--and, frequently self-defeating--is the course of deliberate
reform. In 1969-1970, the McGovern commission set out to "clean up" the
presidential nominating process by scourging its most questionable
machinery--the party caucuses and state conventions, where organization
leaders frequently railroaded through handpicked delegate slates. The
rules adopted for "opening up" the caucuses and the conventions were quite
effective--so effective, in fact, that several states thought better of
continuing to use the caucus-convention system for choosing national
convention delegates. Since the question of the presidential nomination is
of secondary importance to many state and local professional politicians,
several states decided to separate the decisions on presidential politics
from their own district and state conventions, where more important
matters like nominations for sheriff and state treasurer are settled. The
upshot was that after a long period of years in which the presidential
primary had fallen into increasing disfavor and disuse, seven additional
states--for a total of twenty-three--adopted or reactivated presidential
primaries for 1972. Georgia was added to the list in 1973, bringing to 70
percent the delegates chosen through that method. Mind you, this is
exactly what the McGovern commission sought to avoid. Early in its
deliberations, the commission considered and rejected a national
presidential primary and sought to perfect what it thought a better
method, a sequence of precinct, county and state convention decisions
leading to the national convention nomination. But the direct result of
the commission's work has been to start the proliferation of the
presidential primaries. It was this proliferation in 1972 which caused
front-runner Muskie's downfall. Miscalculating the strain on himself, his
organization, and his treasury, he tried to run them all--and failed,
opening the way for McGovern.
The effect on centrist candidates such as Muskie is likely to be even
worse in 1976, because of a further refinement in the rules voted by the
1972 convention. Seized by the spirit of reform, the convention decreed
that no longer shall any candidate receive all of a state's delegate votes
simply by winning a plurality of the popular vote in its primary; no more
winner-take-all, as in California; proportionality shall be the rule, the
Splendid in its theoretical virtue, the new rule has the practical
consequence of forcing everyone to run everywhere. No longer can a
candidate afford to bypass North Carolina, let us say, or West Virginia,
or New Mexico, to concentrate time, energy, and funds on winning a big
pile of delegates in California. Any time he declines to enter a state, he
abandons whatever portion of the delegates he would otherwise win and
fattens the percentage going to a more energetic or better organized rival
As a third stage of reform, the Mikulski commission, not to be outdone,
recommended (subject to review by the national committee) that the same
principle of proportional representation be applied, right down to the
precinct level, in states using the caucus-convention system. In those
states, any candidate who receives 10 percent of the votes at any level
will be entitled to his proportional share of the delegates at the next
higher level. The effect, again, is to force everyone to compete
everywhere--everywhere, in these twenty-four states, being defined as
literally every precinct.
The burden this puts on all candidates and on the party's financiers is
awesome, but it has a special effect so far as Wallace is concerned.
Wallace is the closest thing to a self-sustaining Democratic candidate
there is. He has cadres of willing supporters everywhere, and the money
buckets passed at his rallies draw real cash.
Kennedy, for different reasons, can match Wallace's manpower and money
generating ability. But take Kennedy out of the Democratic field, and
substitute six other Senator Blands, and there are those willing to bet
right now that George Wallace will be top man in more Democratic primaries
and state conventions than anyone else. In a six-man field of five
middle-roaders and Wallace, he might win every primary in the
country--including the District of Columbia.
I draw a veil, as the Victorian novelists liked to say, over the scene at
a Democratic convention where George Wallace leads on the first ballot,
and leave it to you to imagine the ensuing tooth-gnashing and
confusion...and I turn to a Democratic problem that could not disappear
even if George Wallace went away.
The leading symptom of that problem is that, Wallace aside, every other
Democratic presidential contender now mentioned for 1976 comes from one
place--the Senate of the United States. What this indicates is that the
Democrats have evolved into a congressionally based party, with a
permanent majority of House and Senate members and a near-permanent,
little-changing set of senatorial Presidents-in-waiting. For reasons that
I argued at length some years ago in this magazine, a congressionally
based party always has trouble when it comes to mounting a campaign for
the presidency. Members of Congress come to enjoy frolicking in their
pools of personal influence, dabbling with the agencies whose funds or
legislation they control, mounting investigations, riding their pet
hobbyhorse through a set of hearings or on a foreign tour. Few of them, at
heart, pine for the discipline of responsibility that falls on them when
their party also controls the executive branch of government and is judged
by the voters on how well its policies and programs perform.
This is a chronic problem for the opposition party, and for a generation
it crippled the Republicans. But there is a special reason, peculiar to
our time, why the Democrats are disadvantaged by being seen as a
congressional party. That is because the people of the United States are
justifiably suspicious of Washington and its works. Congress has a
slightly higher rating than the President, but a party that is seen
through the prism of an institution which only 30 percent of the voters
say they admire is not in a terribly advantageous position.
This is not just a theoretical problem. Republican voter identification is
down since the 1979 election, which is not surprising. But the percentage
of voters willing to call themselves Democrats is also lower than it was
at the time of the McGovern debacle. Congressional dominance of the party
inhibits the Democrats from exploiting what is clearly the strongest
emotion in the public today--a disgust with the way in which Washington
officials have abused the responsibilities of leadership. The obvious
Democratic battle cry for 1976 is the classic, "Throw the rascals out!''
The only difficulty is that so many of the rascals turn out to be none
other than the very congressional Democrats who now hold the party in
There are many examples of this, but the clearest lies in the area of
campaign finance, which Watergate demonstrated badly needs reform. But for
Democrats, the approach to the issue of campaign finance is a succession
of embarrassments. For example, the three-month delay in the effective
date of the 1971 reform bill, which enabled Maurice Stans to use his
vacuum cleaner so effectively on the wallets of wealthy Nixon supporters,
was arranged by Representative Wayne Hays of Ohio, the chairman of the
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, who wanted his colleagues to
have the opportunity to hit their own contributors once more, in secret,
before the new reform became effective.
The Democrats' deference to Congress has a second debilitating effect in
the deprivation of the party and the country of the available talents of
non-Washington officials. As it happens, Democrats now govern thirty
two of the fifty states and control most of the major city halls from New
York to Chicago to Los Angeles.
But you would never know that from what you read or hear about the
Democratic Party. Playing to the dependable tunnel vision of the
Washington press corps, the Democrats have so arranged things that the
only Democratic voices heard in the land are those of congressional
Democrats. Strauss likes to say that "I'm governor-oriented," but I would
venture the guess that more than 80 percent of all the Democratic
quotations used on the AP and UPI trunk wires and the three television
news shows in the past year were provided by not more than eight members
of the United States Senate: Sam Ervin, Mike Mansfield, William Proxmire,
Scoop Jackson, Ted Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Byrd, and Ed
Some of the party's most promising potential candidates for President are
outside the Senate--and outside Washington. Governors have been at a
disadvantage in both parties for the last twenty years, and the Democratic
governors now in office face special problems in making their numbers and
political muscle felt in national party affairs. The three big industrial
state Democratic governors who would normally be doing the political
brokering for the group--Gilligan of Ohio, Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania,
and Dan Walker of Illinois--all have maverick streaks that make it hard
for them to enlist willing allies.
But there are at least three Southern Democratic governors--Reubin Askew
of Florida, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, and Jimmy Carter of Georgia--who
have solved the critical problem facing the Democratic Party in the 1970s
perhaps more successfully than any senator. Each has shown in his own
state how to establish direct communication with the voters and how to
develop sufficient personal trust to succeed in pushing progressive
programs in an essentially conservative political climate. Any of the
three, but particularly Askew, might stand a better chance of heading off
Wallace in the 1976 Southern primaries than any Northern Democratic
senator. But as matters stand, with the Democratic Party and the press
both focusing on the Senate as the mother of Presidents (or at least
candidates), there is little likelihood that such men will get a
hearing--either for the presidential nomination or for anything else.
With other Democratic officeholders outside Washington, the Southern
governors need to be heard if the party is to tackle its last and probably
most important problem--the vacuum in policy ideas. Whatever other costs
congressional dominance of the Democratic Party has brought, the worst
effect has been in deadening and thwarting the needed policy debate.
As long ago as February, 1972, Stewart Alsop noted that, with the
disappearance of the Vietnam War issue, the Democrats were "nekkid as a
jay-bird," their "ideological cupboard as bare as Mother Hubbard's." But
congressional Democrats--or most of them, at any rate--see no compulsion
for the party to reexamine its basic premises, or take a second look at
the policies and programs it has been peddling since Roosevelt's time.
They note, with a certain smugness, that Democrats have not lost their
congressional majorities since 1952, and they are not likely to lose them
in the foreseeable future. Why worry? they ask.
That is true enough. But it is also a fact that only once since 1944 has
the Democratic candidate for President been able to win a majority of the
national vote. Put that way, there is a little less cause for
Evidence abounds that the Democrats have exhausted the mine of social,
economic, and foreign policy ideas on which they--and the country--lived
from the New Deal through the Great Society. When Strauss was asked, at a
breakfast with reporters, what the Democratic Party stands for, he
replied, "Hell, I don't know. That's not my worry."
The worst fiascoes of George McGovern's campaign--the thousand-dollar
"demogrant" proposal and the alternative defense budget--occurred in part
because, in the four years preceding 1972, no group of Democrats ever met
to thrash out what the party might advocate as a substitute for the
welfare system or as a post-Vietnam defense policy.
The same intellectual anemia has shown up in Congress in recent years.
Democrats seem uncertain whether or not they doctrinally favor economic
controls; tax increases, tax reductions, or tax reforms; rationing or some
other market-related form of energy allocation; revenue-sharing or
expansion of categorical grants; lower defense spending or higher arms aid
to Israel. Often, they have ended by passing the buck to the President, a
President they claim already has too much discretionary power. The
Ninety-third Congress earned a reputation in its first session as one that
was courageous to end television blackouts on home football games, but did
not want to risk more weighty decisions.
During the time that Carl Albert was next in line to the presidency,
before Gerald Ford's confirmation as Vice President, it became something
of a Washington parlor game to ask Democratic officials what actions could
be expected from an Albert administration. The answer, it appeared, was
that President Albert would have invited Congress to pass the minimum wage
bill Mr. Nixon had vetoed. He would have implored Henry Kissinger to
continue his custody of foreign policy. And then, said one of the party's
elders, "We would have advised him to appoint a hell of a lot of task
Some Democrats were not amused by the situation. Last August, Patricia M.
Derian, the national committeewoman from Mississippi, sent Strauss and her
colleagues a letter declaring, "We cannot wait until the next presidential
campaign to propose some alternative to the Nixon form of government. We
are not obliged to focus on one individual before we can devise a program
for this country. We can take responsibility as a party."
Mrs. Derian asked for an immediate start on substantive consideration of
Democratic programs for the 1970s. "I know the argument that we have a
party so diverse that we cannot bind campaigning Democrats to a party
line," she said. "I have heard people say that the only reason for having
a party is to get Democrats elected. But what does it mean to anyone
anymore to be a Democrat? If it only signifies that one is not a
Republican, that is not enough.
"We know our glorious past...Grand yesterdays and a good feeling that we'd
be dependable and right for the country if we were in charge don't cut any
ice with the voters. That may be the main reason why more and more people
call themselves Independents instead of party members. Even Independents
have to have some reason to vote a ticket. And while we might slide by the
next congressional elections by not being Republicans, that state of
affairs won't last long. And it's not the point: we haven't got three
years to wait to influence the direction of this country."
Chairman Strauss referred Mrs. Derian's letter to Arthur Krim, the United
Artists executive and fund raiser for Lyndon Johnson whom Strauss had
named as chairman of the party's grandly titled Advisory Council of
Elected Public Officials. This august body. consisting of leading members
of Congress. governors, mayors and state legislators, was appointed early
in 1973 to give the party a policy voice. It managed to meet twice during
the year, issuing a half-dozen statements whose content and syntax made
Ron Ziegler seem, by comparison, not an obfuscator at all, but a master of
the declarative sentence and the punchy paragraph. Its pronouncements were
universally and justifiably ignored by the press.
By contrast, in a similar circumstance following Adlai Stevenson's second
defeat in 1956, then national chairman Paul M. Butler chartered an
advisory council that made both policy and news. While most congressional
Democrats followed Lyndon Johnson's and Sam Rayburn's lead in refusing
membership, enough of the big names--Stevenson, Acheson, Eleanor
Roosevelt, and the then current crop of Democratic governors and
mayors--were aboard to assure maximum publicity for its delineations of
the Democrats' differences with the increasingly conservative Eisenhower
policies of those years. It was the advisory council, more than any other
single institution, that shaped and publicized the issues--Medicare, civil
rights, and economic development--on which Kennedy waved his 1960
campaign. And behind the big names, a dozen task forces recruited the
minds and tested the substantive policies--the disarmament theories of
Paul Nitze, the "new economics" of Walter Heller--that the Democrats
adopted when they returned to power.
Such an opportunity exists again today, but so far there is little sign
that Strauss or Krim will seize it. Both are wary of stirring the wrath of
senior congressional Democrats by allowing the advisory council to explore
areas of policy on which the lawmakers themselves are divided, as often
happened in Paul Butler's time. Impatient with Krim's and Strauss's slow
pace, a group of mostly youthful alumni of various 1972 candidates'
staffs, now scattered to law firms, consulting jobs, and the congressional
bureaucracy, have organized a wholly unofficial Democratic Forum in
Washington for serious, monthly policy discussions.
Whether their group can attain the influence and the audience that the
somewhat similar Republican Ripon Society developed in the mid-1960s
remains to be seen. But the group's existence and its rapid growth
indicate a hunger for the major missing ingredient in today's Democratic
Party: fresh ideas.
After one recent meeting a member of the Democratic Forum remarked: "I
don't know where we will come out on this question [energy policy]. But
it's got to be better than the speech my boss [a Democratic senator] has
been giving so far, you know, the one about 'when the Democrats were in
power, gas stations were open on Sunday and gas cost only 30 cents a
gallon.'" The American people not only deserve better of the opposition
party, they are likely to demand it. Every serious analysis of the 1972
election shows that issues had a larger importance than ever before--and
worked badly to the Democrats' detriment. What few Democrats in Congress,
but many outside, see is that, despite Watergate chicanery, Richard Nixon
won on the issues in 1972--as he was able to define them.
Unless the Democratic Party sweeps the mental cobwebs out of its mind
before 1976. Republicans may have the issues field to themselves again.
Nelson Rockefeller has his multimillion-dollar apparatus for policy
analysis, the Commission on Critical Choices, in high gear. Ronald Reagan,
with his ready facility for popularizing the anti-big government
philosophy of the National Review thinkers, is ready on the other flank.
The Republicans are well into issues politics.
The question is whether the Democrats will compete or, by adopting the
complacent standpatism of their congressional wing, defect. Despite what
many Democrats came to believe after the 1968 and 1972 conventions, the
Democratic Party is still standing. What remains to be seen is whether it
will stand for something.
Copyright © 1974 by David Broder. All rights
"The Democrats' Dilemma";
The Atlantic Monthly, March, 1974, issue.
Vol. 233, No. 3 (p.31-40).