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Dems Drawn-out Primary Creates Concerns for General Election

April 3, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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With Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama locked in a hard-fought -- and lengthy -- battle for delegates, the race for the Democratic nomination is pushing forward. Presidential historians discuss what past elections show about the impact of protracted primary races.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, what is the history of prolonged presidential primary battles? Judy Woodruff is in charge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now that Hillary Clinton has vowed to stay in the race for the Democratic nomination until every vote is counted, even if that means all the way to the convention, some worry the protracted fight could jeopardize Democrats’ chances in the fall.

To discuss that, we are joined by presidential historians Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith. He’s a scholar in residence at George Mason University.

We also hope to be joined by Peniel Joseph. He’s professor of history and African-American studies at Brandeis University. He’s in Louisville, Kentucky, tonight, where there’s some heavy rainstorms affecting the signal. We’ll see if he can join us.

But, gentlemen, let’s begin, Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith, to you, first. There are a lot of people who are saying this contest has gotten really ugly, nasty things said on both sides, strong feelings on both sides.

What’s the history of this kind of a contentious primary? How often have we seen this?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, we see these often. And I’ll tell you, this is a lot milder than what we’ve seen in the past. And the fact is that even a very bitter, divisive, internal struggle does not have to doom a party’s chances in November, if there are external factors, like a desire for change, which we’re all familiar with this year.

Classic example is 1952. The Democrats had been in power 20 years. The country was in an unpopular war in Korea. And yet the Republicans almost tore themselves apart, leading up to and at their convention, with a deep ideological and cultural divide between Dwight Eisenhower and the moderates and Bob Taft and the conservatives.

Eisenhower won in the credentials fight, a messy fight on the convention floor, where they actually tossed Taft delegates out, and it was all on television.

And interestingly, the Eisenhower people thought television was their greatest ally. If they could get people to look inside the convention, then they could rally the public to their version of events.

And in November, there’s absolutely no evidence that it undercut Eisenhower’s chances. He won in a landslide against a very attractive Democratic candidate, Adlai Stevenson.

Divisive battles of the past

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
In 1960, agents for Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy's biggest opponent in Los Angeles, were spreading the rumor, which actually turned out to be true, that Kennedy was suffering from Addison's disease.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, how does the rhetoric, whether you agree that it's over-the-top or not, how does it compare with what we've seen in other protracted primaries?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: It's not as ugly as it's sometimes been. For instance, in 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt was running for the Democratic nomination the first time, agents of some of his opponents spread the rumor that he wasn't suffering from polio but some disease that was affecting his brain and was progressive.

In 1960, agents for Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy's biggest opponent in Los Angeles, were spreading the rumor, which actually turned out to be true, that Kennedy was suffering from Addison's disease. Some of them even said, which would not have been true, we assume, that Kennedy might have died in office and so therefore don't nominate him.

You know, it's nothing of that level, but if you look at divisions in parties in history, the deepest divisions have been when it's been ideological. Richard mentioned Dwight Eisenhower and Taft in '52. That was a difference that they were able to paper over.

In 1968, Hubert Humphrey and Gene McCarthy broke over the Vietnam War. That division was not resolved, had a lot to do with the fact that Humphrey lost.

Divisions among the electorate

Richard Norton Smith
George Mason University
The differences are not ideological in the traditional sense or even really programmatic, but they involve gender and they involve race, which in some ways are even more combustible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, but these divisions are not ideological between Clinton and Obama for the most part. They have a disagreement on health care. So what does that tell us, in terms of what it's going to take to put this together?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: The differences are not ideological in the traditional sense or even really programmatic, but they involve gender and they involve race, which in some ways are even more combustible.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Right.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And we are making history, as has been said. And that introduces a whole lot of elements that are really unique to this situation.

So I think it makes for, in some ways, a more almost incendiary race for the nomination, but I don't think, once the convention is held -- well, the Democrats can taste victory. They want this badly. And I think that in itself is going to be enough to bring them together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you also have, Michael Beschloss, people with very strong feelings on both sides. For example, you've got a number of women and older voters saying it's Hillary or no one; younger voters, African-Americans saying Barack Obama or no one. Have we seen anything like that in the past?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No, we haven't, and that's why I'm more pessimistic than Richard is, as far as the Democrats being able to make this up, because Eisenhower and Taft, for instance, they had disagreements about the role of the federal government and the economy and what should happen in foreign policy, but it wasn't as if a certain segment of the country was pitted against another segment.

We're seeing that this year probably more than any time in recent history, so that if Barack Obama is nominated, you might see some of the demographic groups that have supported Hillary Clinton, like working-class Democrats and women, be very angry.

And the same thing true on the other side, that you might see some African-Americans, intellectuals, youth, who have been strongly for Obama, that might be a little bit harder to make up.

Benefit of a prolonged process

Michael Beschloss
Presidential Historian
Unless Obama and Clinton can somehow find some way of bridging this gap, perhaps by one of them becoming vice president, as Kennedy was able to do in 1960 with Johnson, I think they're going to have big problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard, isn't it also the case that, when the damage has been less serious, when it's been an open primary, the situation we have this year, no incumbent running, 1960 you mentioned...

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, 1960 is a classic case where a prolonged and, in some ways, very divisive, even bitter fight turned out to be exactly what John F. Kennedy needed to introduce himself to the country, to grow in many ways as a candidate in the process. I mean, you could argue that Kennedy was an infinitely stronger candidate by the time he got to the convention than he was when he announced in January.

Oddly enough, 16 years later, the Ford-Reagan contest is often pointed to as an example of how a divisive fight will kill your chances in November. You could actually argue that that fight made Gerald Ford a much better candidate than he might have been without...

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It did -- I'd like to agree with Richard, but it also made him a loser, because these divisions were so deep they could not be bridged.

In 1968, Gene McCarthy didn't endorse Humphrey until the last week. He said, "All right, I'm going to vote for Humphrey. Every Democrat should suffer along with me." That didn't exactly bring a lot of people to his side, same thing with Reagan and Ford.

And unless Obama and Clinton can somehow find some way of bridging this gap, perhaps by one of them becoming vice president, as Kennedy was able to do in 1960 with Johnson, I think they're going to have big problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it was Jimmy Carter was an incumbent. It wasn't an open election, but in 1980 Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter in his own party. And right there at the convention, it was still pretty clear that these two men had not mended any fences.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: And, again, the power of television. Television has transformed how we nominate and elect our presidents. And the images that we remember from the 1980 convention is, in fact, of the non-handshake.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It was said that Kennedy looked as if he was going up to Carter and shaking hands with him, as if he was doing a drop-by at the wedding of one of his minor employees. It didn't help.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: But that was another example where there really was kind of a pent-up desire for change. And, you know, there had been a fairly bitter Republican fight that year between Ronald Reagan and what was sort of left of the old GOP establishment, and went right down to the convention, and yet the country wanted something different, like 1952, like 1968, arguably like 1992, certainly, in the case of Bill Clinton's first election.

An end to the in-fighting

Richard Norton Smith
George Mason University
If you sulk in your tent this year and you are fingered as the individual responsible for costing the Democrats the White House in this year, when everything is really in their favor, you will pay a permanent price.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What signs do we look for that this can be patched up? I mean, at this point, you have Barack Obama clearly saying he's going all the way. Hillary Clinton as recently as today saying not only she's going all the way, she's saying -- we heard her say she doesn't even consider pledged delegates truly pledged. I mean, we're not seeing any sign of either candidate...

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No. And I think the thing to do is to look for, after the convention, is look for the absence of what we've seen in these killer divided party elections. For instance, in '76, Reagan perfunctorily endorsed Gerald Ford, then went off to campaign ostentatiously for the Republican platform, i.e., not for Jerry.

And Ted Kennedy made a couple of commercials for Carter, but privately put out word that it was perfectly fine for his old supporters to -- at least some of his aides did -- that they were perfectly content to vote for John Anderson. Jackie Kennedy voted for John Anderson that year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it's more than papering over whatever hard feelings there are.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: But, also, think of the consequences to the loser. If you sulk in your tent this year and you are fingered as the individual responsible for costing the Democrats the White House in this year, when everything is really in their favor, you will pay a permanent price.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But Richard, Ronald Reagan did not pay a dime for that. He was nominated in 1980, after a lot of the Ford people felt that he had cost them the election.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Sure.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: That's how tough this is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will wait and see what happens. Richard Norton Smith -- I have a feeling we may have a chance to talk about this again.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Once or twice, maybe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith.

And our apologies. We had hoped to be joined by Peniel Joseph at Brandeis University. And we hope to have him again or have him on very soon.