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Back to the Future: Is the 2008 Election a 1968 Redux?

What parallels emerge between the 1968 U.S. presidential election and the 2008 campaign?

March 30, 2007

What parallels emerge between the 1968 U.S. presidential election and the 2008 campaign?

The 2008 U.S. presidential race has some interesting parallels to the 1968 race between Richard M. Nixon and Hubert H. Humphrey. The Vietnam War was an overriding theme in the 1968 race — and Iraq will be the dominant issue in 2008.

Accordingly, candidates from both parties would do well to learn some of the lessons of 1968 regarding the war.

In 1968, Nixon talked about his secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. However, instead of revealing details of what he intended to do, he only speculated as to what the outcome would be.

At the same time, Nixon did not really challenge the specifics of what then-U.S. president Lyndon Johnson was doing, so much as he said he would do things differently with his secret plan to stop the fighting.

Humphrey tried to be the loyal vice president, unwilling to be too critical of President Johnson — while at the same time finding space in which to push for his own policies. This was complicated by the fact that Johnson was taking a hard line toward Vietnam in late 1968, despite the Paris Peace talks. His intransiance was at odds with the strong tilt of the Democrats against the war.

As it turned out, Humphrey could not overcome the image of being Johnson's man. Johnson's position on the war was the reason he was challenged in the Democratic Party primaries, and ultimately decided not to seek re-election. Humphrey lost, and Nixon — with his secret plan and muted, yet detailed criticism of Johnson's tactics — carried the day.

The tragedy of the 1968 election was not only that Nixon did not end the war (although he eventually was able to wind it down) — but that he did not understand the devastating impact the war was having on U.S. society. It was a defining issue that split the country apart.

Had there been more scrutiny of the plans of both candidates to get the nation out of Vietnam, as well as tough questioning about how they intended to keep the nation together as they implemented their policy prescriptions, the nation would have been better served.

As it was, U.S. voters "bought a pig in a poke," and the country paid the price both in terms of national security and foreign policy — and in terms of the burgeoning political divide between left and right.

What the United States is facing today with respect to the war in Iraq offers the presidential candidates some of the tough choices that the candidates in 1968 faced. The irony is the reversal in the positions of the Democrats and Republicans between then and now. Then, the Democrats ran the White House, and the Republicans were able to stake out their own ground with respect to the war.

Now, Republicans control the White House, and Democrats are in a position to move things in a new direction with regard to Iraq.

Current leading candidates among Republicans have all embraced President Bush's surge policy in Iraq. Like Hubert Humphrey in 1968, they are seen as the president's heirs on the issue. Success in Iraq will thus greatly enhance the chances of the Republican nominee in the 2008 presidential race — while failure there would have the opposite effect.

On the Democratic side, there are shades of difference between what ought to be done with respect to strategy and tactics, but the common goal is consistent — getting the United States out of Iraq. They are staking their future on President Bush's policy not succeeding.

The subtext for what the Iraq war is doing to U.S. society is similar to what Vietnam did to the country in 1968. Public opinion and protests shaped the election in '68. The changes made then had a lasting impact for decades. The same sort of galvanizing effect on the American people may be occurring with Iraq.

The left has found its voice again, and it is shaping elections as well. The shift in control of the U.S. Congress in 2006 was due at least in part to anti-war sentiment.

The trick for Democrats today is to navigate between the zeal of the hard left, which wants the United States out of Iraq now, and the general public, which also wants the United States out — but is also concerned about the consequences of a precipitous pullout.

On the Republican side, the candidates must also navigate between being the president's water carriers on the war and those, even among Republican voters, who are very concerned about the consequences of the present policy.

The 1968 election offered an opportunity for candidates to chart their own course in Vietnam. The 2008 election offers a similar opportunity in Iraq. Candidates from both parties should not repeat a key mistake from 1968 — not reading the mood of the country, and thereby developing policy options that did nothing to heal the breach in society.

Winning the election is one thing, but governing under such difficult circumstances is another. Most Americans want their leaders to be "deciders." At the same time, they expect them to make decisions that not only make sense — but that reflect the mood and concerns of the voters. After all, that is what deciding means in a democracy.