Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has the same significance as Eugene J. McCarthy‘s in 1968.
McCarthy was a moderate Democrat from Minnesota who chose to run against incumbent Lyndon Johnson on a platform of opposition to the Vietnam War.
He didn’t have an especially distinguished record, and he wasn’t the best possible candidate. But he was the candidate who had the nerve to run while all the other war opponents held back. He provided an outlet for all the pent-up anti-war sentiment.
He won a plurality of the votes in the New Hampshire primary, against two slates of delegates both pledged to President Johnson. His victory emboldened Senator Robert F. Kennedy to run, and Johnson decided not to seek re-election.
Even if Kennedy had not been assassinated, he probably would not have been able to defeat the entrenched Democratic Party organization or to prevent the nomination of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.
What McCarthy and then Kennedy did do was to open the door for a peace faction which was a continuing force in the Democratic Party independent of McCarthy himself. I think, or at least I hope, Bernie Sanders has opened the door for a Democratic Party social justice faction that will outlive the Sanders campaign.
Hillary Clinton has taken part in three national presidential campaigns (1992, 1996, 2008) and has been lining up support as a national candidate for 10 or 12 years. She had endorsements from most of the top Democratic office-holders, a network of big-money donors and a campaign organization in place.
The important thing about Sanders, like McCarthy, is not that his spur-of-the-moment campaigns ultimately failed, but that it did so well. As with the McCarthy campaign, it is less about the political appeal of an individual than about the important issues he raised.
Another similarity with 1968 is the “lesser evil” argument made on behalf of Johnson and Humphrey.
President Johnson was the strongest advocate of equal rights for black people to occupy the White House since U.S. Grant, and liberals supported his Great Society anti-poverty program. Hubert Humphrey also was a long-term champion of civil rights.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Kennedy, who supported these programs, nevertheless denounced Johnson’s Vietnam policy. Some Democrats and self-described liberals denounced them for this. They said attacks on Johnson helped the Republican conservatives and Southern segreationists.
Possibly King and Kennedy, if they had lived, would have voted for Humphrey in order to defeat Richard Nixon and George Wallace. I myself voted for Humphrey, even though I’d made a campaign contribution to McCarthy.
I don’t see Hillary Clinton as the equivalent of Hubert Humphrey. Voting for her to keep Donald Trump out of the White House would be like voting for Richard Nixon to keep George Wallace out.