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Assessing the Campaign

March 9, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Each presidential campaign is unique, but all have similarities to the past. This time around is no exception, especially when it comes to the dynamics of insurgency versus a party establishment. The perspective now of NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist and author Haynes Johnson, and joining them tonight is Joan Hoff, director of the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University.

Well, earlier in the hour, we heard Bill Bradley musing on how difficult it is to run against entrenched power in this country. Doris, can it work at all?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, it hasn’t worked very often. There’s no question about that. You look back to Teddy Roosevelt’s campaign in 1912. Now, that should have been the one that had the greatest chance of all: Former president, incredibly popular. He actually had on his side a majority of the rank-and-file of the Republican Party. But Taft and the establishment controlled the machinery. When he got to the convention he was unable to let his delegates be able to be seen and heard in the same way he wanted so he bolted it and ran on a third party…did incredibly well for a third-party candidate but still was unable to win, split the party, allowed Wilson to win. So if that’s the greatest chance we’ve had, it shows how hard it is.

But the interesting thing is in the modern day, it should be easier. People’s identification with parties is not what it once was. There’s a huge independent block out there. They used to say I’m a Democrat, a Roman Catholic as if it was a part of their sense of self. Now lots of people are independents. Primaries have replaced some of the control that parties had. And I’d just like to suggest that it’s possible to imagine, if we look at this last race, that it might have come out differently. What if there had been just one insurgent instead of two. What if you combine sort of the cerebralness of McCain — of Bradley — with the fire and passion of McCain? What if you had been able to have McCain’s ideas about campaign finance reform combined with a liberal philosophy of what it’s not able to do because of the corruption with child poverty, with education, which McCain couldn’t do because he was conservative? What if the primaries had been spread out more so that there had been more time for that insurgency to catch hold? I’m not so sure that structurally it’s impossible even though history suggests that it’s really, really hard.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Joan Hoff, it takes us 100 years to get from William Jennings Bryant to John McCain. What do you think is important for us to look at or what’s changed over that time?

JOAN HOFF: Well, it did take us a hundred years. And I was kind of hoping that McCain would combine the crusading manner of William Jennings Bryant with the reform manner of Theodore Roosevelt and say today in his speech that he thought that if soft money continued to be in these campaigns that we would crucify the electoral process on the cross of gold. But he didn’t have the courage of my convictions on that point.

I think Doris is right. You have one in five elections have been affected significantly, if you think 8 percent is significant, a percentage of the total popular vote, one in five since we’ve been having elections have been affected by third parties and four of those have occurred in this century. You have it in 1912, as Doris said. You had it in 1924 with — you had it in 1968 with George Wallace and then finally you had it with Perot and even Anderson before him in 1980.

So it’s well worth looking at these third parties because they supply the ideas that the two major parties — and I think our two major parties are so much alike now that they have contributed to a large independent vote out there — and anyone who can attract them with ideas about reform — and that’s the function of insurgency candidacies as we saw in this primary season. That’s the historic message they carry: New ideas that very often the two major parties co-op but nonetheless they get new ideas into our political thought.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Beschloss, Doris noted that the primary season has become more open: Party identification has become looser. A lot of the insurgents have had the necessary money. Why is it so hard to run against your own party?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, Bill Bradley is a demonstration of that because here is someone who was pretty well known and also able to match Al Gore in money-raising. But you know, Ray, the classic case of entrenched power, to use Bradley’s phrase, ‘crushing an insurgent’ was in 1968 when Hubert Humphrey was able to crush Eugene McCarthy and before him Robert Kennedy. Almost a third of the Democratic delegates were selected even before that election year. So the primary process nowadays has been fashioned to be sort of a correction of that, and we all would have assumed after those reforms came that you’d have one insurgent winning after another and you look back over the last 30 years, it has rarely happened. Probably the best example would be George McGovern in 1972 was able to defeat Edmund Muskie and a number of other pretty establishment candidates.

That happened because McGovern was riding an issue –Vietnam. Americans and particularly Democrats were disgusted with the Vietnam War. It had gone on in a big way for eight years. McGovern was able to say, ‘I’m tougher than Muskie is on the war.’ And he was able to get through. The other example of an insurgent doing fairly well in getting through that way would have been Jimmy Carter who was able to win the nomination in 1976. But that only happened because the field was divided. There were more than half a dozen candidates splitting it all up so that Carter was able to win early contests with really small slivers of the vote. Since that time, we have front-loaded this. It’s a much shorter process, much more dependent on money raising, television schools, name identification. So in a way the parties have restacked the deck to make it very difficult for insurgents to get through. And I think we’ve seen that this year.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Haynes, we’ve been talking so much about losing but maybe we should look at Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan in 1976. They eventually win.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, that’s the wonderful thing about it. The insurgents, the revolutionaries, the pitch-fork people and all that take off, invariably they lose the first time out, but the causes that they represent turn out to be winners — the ones you just mentioned. Strom Thurmond leaves the Democratic Party — by the way — the same one who is now almost 100 years old. This is Strom Thurmond who is still senator from South Carolina — formed the Dixiecrat Party — and that was going to end the Democratic Party because the solid South was the base of the Democratic Party. Twenty years later, the transformation had occurred. The Democratic Party had lost the solid South.

It was all Republican. Ronald Reagan challenges Gerry Ford, the sitting president of the party. He loses in 1976. Four years later he’s president of the United States. Barry Goldwater takes control of the Republican Party, doesn’t win the presidency and the nominating fight. But, by gosh, he comes along with an heir like Reagan who turns it all around. We mentioned already Robert Kennedy and Gene McCarthy, the causes for which they fought: anti-war, civil rights, women’s rights — all of those things become transcendent in the long run and so that they may be a lag, but you can win by losing.

RAY SUAREZ: Should that idea, Doris, give John McCain some hope this evening?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I’m sure it’s what he’s counting on. I mean, you can’t imagine I’m sure after all the energy, the psychic force, the exhaustion that he must have felt after these last years — last months — and all the excitement that he generated that he’s ready to give up quickly. I’m sure he’s trying to figure out — and I think that’s why his statement didn’t say what he’s going to do now — what to do to make it more likely. He’s still a young man. There’s still a future that he might be — suppose George Bush loses the actual election. Four years from now is not very long. And, in fact, in this horrible process, like two years from now we’ll be watching the campaign once more. And once you’ve gone through it, you learn something. That’s what we’ve also seen in the last years. The people who have tried and lost are much more experienced. They figured out how to do it. And then they come back. Even Bradley’s people are saying that maybe he’ll be back in four years, so maybe we’ll see a rerun four years from now.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Joan Hoff, if we look at this long list of names that the 20th century has given us, whether it’s Bob Lafollette, or Henry Wallace or George Wallace or Jerry Brown to today with Bradley and McCain, one thing they all talked about was new politics, that they represented a new kind of politics. Do they?

JOAN HOFF: I think sometimes they do, but sometimes they represent old politics. Theodore Roosevelt wanted to go back to the progressive reforms that he didn’t think President Taft had carried out. And I think Bradley really wanted to go back to the old Democratic reforms and coalition that the New Deal started. So I think in that sense, they very often go back to what they think is legitimate reform when the two major parties are mired down in conformism. So that’s I think the significance of these parties. And also keep in mind, usually the insurgency candidates represent liberal ideas. Very seldom do they represent conservative ideas. And in this case McCain is slightly different because of his conservatism. His one real reform is campaign finance. But, largely speaking, they usually are going back either to an earlier era of reform or projecting reform forward beyond the two major parties. And that’s a significant function to perform.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, since you mentioned campaign finance, Michael, let’s talk a little bit about money. One thing that the new era should bring is if you can raise the money, it should be easier to run an insurgency, no?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think that’s true. And that’s why many people thought that Bill Bradley might have a chance to win this year, but you’re still coming up against a number of things that are going to make it very tough. One is the fact that we in this country are not in the habit of tossing out incumbent vice presidents, especially with a very good reason. The other thing is that when you have an insurgent like John McCain who does very well, it does give him bargaining power. And, oftentimes, you will — if you were John McCain — wish that you were the one to come in second but it also can give you a great deal of influence.

Two earlier examples, 1960, Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal lost to Richard Nixon the moderate conservative for the Republican nomination, but Rockefeller was powerful enough that he was able to basically drag Nixon to his apartment on Fifth Avenue and negotiate with him for six hours to get Nixon to adopt a lot of his views. They called it the “Compact of Fifth Avenue.” Dwight Eisenhower was furious because a lot of that was critical of him.

He called up Nixon and he said, ‘If you start criticizing me, I might not b able to support you for president this fall,’ And the other great example was Ronald Reagan in the summer of 1976. He figured if he wasn’t going to win and defeat General Ford, at least he was going to ram a platform down Gerry Ford’s throat that was a Reagan platform. The best plank in that platform in terms of being memorable was what was sort of elegantly called the Morality in Foreign Policy Amendment which was a rebuke to the Ford-Kissinger way of detente with the Soviet Union. Someone said that they should call the plank the “Fire Henry Kissinger” Amendment.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Haynes, finally, should the standing candidates from the two major parties now feel pretty secure that those on the losing end of the question will come around by election day?

HAYNES JOHNSON: No, not all. As a matter of fact, the swing votes that we’ve talked about on this program and earlier with Jim and David and Tom was the idea that they do control the power. The two parties are not the operative forces now. They get the nominees in there, but you’ve got to win those people who are independently motivated, and who will vote that way. So if you don’t get those in, you can lose. You can wind up being a big loser. And that’s the really fascinating thing. We’re going to have at some point a third-party candidate who will win. Then we’ll see if he can govern.

RAY SUAREZ: Haynes, Michael, Doris, and Joan, thanks a lot.