Back to The '60s

By Harold Meyerson
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Throughout American history, the Democratic Party has had one unhappy distinction: It has been home to more of the major fault lines dividing the United States than any other institution.

The Jacksonian Democrats of the early 19th century split into sectional branches over their inability to resolve their differences on slavery. (Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860 because he faced three regional Democratic opponents in that year's election.) In the 1920s, the Protestant-Catholic divide turned the party into two rival camps: Catholic-dominated urban political machines and the white Protestant South. And by the late 1960s, the New Deal coalition had been torn asunder by the party's embrace of civil rights and the fight over the war in Vietnam.

The fault lines of the '60s persisted for decades, not least because the linchpin of Republican electoral strategy since 1968 has been to paint the Democrats as peaceniks of questionable patriotism and as cultural elitists indifferent if not hostile to the white working class. The divisions also resurfaced in the party's own presidential primaries, where candidates staked out their turf either on the side of such working-class concerns as protecting industry or expanding health care (as did Walter Mondale, Dick Gephardt and Tom Harkin) or on the side of the foreign policy and environmental concerns presumably more dear to the party's upscale professionals (as did Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas and Bill Bradley).

As the '60s grew smaller in the rearview mirror, however, the actual differences among the Democratic contenders grew smaller, too. Between Al Gore and Bill Bradley in 2000, or John Kerry and John Edwards in 2004, the differences in policy were minor compared with the competing views of America in the world that had divided, say, George McGovern and Scoop Jackson in the early 1970s. And as 2008 loomed, Democrats had every reason to think that this year's contest would be smoother yet. The multiple disasters of the Bush presidency had unified the Democrats around a more populist, activist economics at home and a more prudential, multilateral foreign policy abroad.

Programmatically, that unity is still there. But as the party staggers away from the Pennsylvania primary, it finds itself stuck inside some time machine that is dragging it back toward the divisions of the 1960s. Hillary Clinton's attacks on Barack Obama -- chiefly, that he's not going to be strong on national defense -- echo the accusations that Scoop Jackson and his followers leveled at the antiwar candidates of the '60s and '70s. Though the divisions between Clinton and Obama on foreign policy are small, Clinton's attacks are part of a larger assault on Obama's trustworthiness that she and the Republicans are both waging and that is designed to position Obama on the side of the elitist insurgents of the '60s. The newly suspect Obama had an angry old black pastor, doesn't wear a flag pin and served on a board with a onetime Weatherman.

We've heard all this before, of course, this Sixties-ization of Democrats: Bill Clinton opposed the Vietnam War and got out of the draft. John Kerry, according to people who made a career of vilifying him, didn't deserve his Vietnam medals and then had the temerity to oppose that war, too.

Obama, one might think, would have been immune to this Sixties-ization, seeing as how he was 9 when the decade ended, but it turns out there are older people in his life who were Sixties people through and through. Republicans dredge this stuff up, and Obama hasn't always handled it well. But Hillary Clinton is slinging it herself, even though it drags her party back to the ancient distempers that had once imperiled her husband's career. The sin of Sixties-ism has little traction among younger voters, but among the old it retains its clout.

The Republican strategy for this year, which Clinton is abetting, is simply to keep the Democrats polarized, in the hope that white working- and middle-class voters will feel estranged from Obama (still the likely nominee) on the grounds of culture and race, and therefore vote for John McCain. The Democratic strategy is to remind voters that there actually are major issues in this election -- the war, the economic marginalization of the middle class, the declining power of the American economy -- on which Obama's positions make a lot more sense than McCain's. Democrats overcome their civil wars when the economy permits them to. This year, it just might.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company