Getting Wrong with 1968
Evan Thomas is back subtracting from the sum total of human knowledge. A few weeks ago, he declared that nobody in 1966 thought that Richard Nixon would win the 1968 GOP nomination. In fact, Nixon was already the frontrunner. Now Thomas has written on what would have happened if RFK had lived and become president.
Kennedy was winning most of the primaries at the time of his death in June 1968, but under the old rules the bosses still controlled the Democratic Party. Hubert Humphrey, LBJ’s vice president and Kennedy’s real rival for the nomination (not Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the poet-politician who was fading in the stretch), was the favorite of the bosses.
Kennedy and McCarthy went head to head in only a few primaries. Over the course of the primary season, McCarthy got 39 percent of the aggregate national vote to Kennedy’s 31 percent. Humphrey was not just the candidate of “the bosses.” On May 14, 1968, Gallup reported that he was the choice of 40 percent of Democrats nationwide, compared with 31 percent for Kennedy and 19 percent for McCarthy.Thomas says that RFK might have had a hard time in the general election:
And RFK would have faced a formidable foe in Richard Nixon in November. The New Nixon was an expert at divide and conquer, and he was building a Silent Majority of white middle-class Americans fearful of rioting blacks and hippie college radicals.
Nixon did not use the phrase “Silent Majority” until November 3, 1969. During the 1968 campaign, he did speak of “the silent center,” a new alignment that would unite blacks and whites. Here is what he said on May 16, 1968:
My point is this: these voice — the Republicans, the New Liberals, the new South, the black militants — are talking the same language. Let’s not oversimplify. The voices are not joined in any harmonious chorus — far from it. The ideas of the new alignment differ in emphasis. But they do not conflict the way the old alliance of power blocs used to conflict.
Thomas suggests that RFK might have been able to seize a middle ground between Old Left and New Right. We’ll never know for sure. But we do know that the actual winner of the 1968 election managed to bridge partisan and ideological divides on issues ranging from welfare reform to the environment to relations with China. His name was Richard M. Nixon.