[Editor’s note: Click here for a related column on Noozhawk’s Point of View section.]
Like Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008, 1968 Democratic standard-bearer Hubert H. Humphrey was, after eight years, making his second run for the White House. Like McCain this year, Humphrey then was trying to defy historical patterns by winning for his party a third consecutive presidential term. And like Humphrey 40 years ago, McCain today is running to succeed an unpopular chief executive from Texas with whom he is unhelpfully closely identified and who is presiding over a troubled economy and a lengthy, unpopular foreign war the nominee has steadfastly supported.
The striking parallels continue. Both Humphrey on his first presidential run in 1960 and McCain in his first try in 2000 were running in years when their respective opposition parties were overreaching for their elusive third consecutive White House term. Almost surely, I believe it is fair to say, both Humphrey and McCain would have won their earlier elections if they had only been able to win their party’s nominations.
The political environment in the years when both men were finally the presidential nominees were frankly unfriendly to their prospects. Between 1964 and 1968, the total Democratic vote for president fell to 43 percent from 61 percent. When some Humphrey loyalists sought to blame his Senate colleague and anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy — who did not endorse Humphrey until the last days of the campaign — for Humphrey’s close loss to Richard Nixon, McCarthy logically responded that he would accept the responsibility for the last 1 percent by which the Democrats’ vote fell between 1964 and 1968 if Humphrey and then-President Lyndon Johnson would accept responsibility for the first 17 percent of the drop.
Between 2004 and today — during the Bush-Cheney second term — the Republican brand has been gravely tarnished and the GOP, by every measurement, has lost significant numbers. Again, McCain in 2008 bears similar burdens to Humphrey in 1968.
But in one crucial — maybe even decisive — area, the two years and the confounding challenges McCain and Humphrey confronted are eerily almost identical. This year and 1968, because of the voters’ disgust with the status quo, both qualify as Change Election Years. Nobody, you may have noticed, is running on a campaign theme of continuity. In fact, at times, McCain’s message has sounded contradictory: Things have never been better … and I’m the only guy who can get us out of the big mess we’re in.
The problem for McCain is that when voters are asked, as they were last week in the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, “How likely do you think it is that (John McCain/Barack Obama) will bring real change and direction to the country — very likely, fairly likely, just somewhat likely or not that likely?” 52 percent of the electorate answered affirmatively — “very likely/fairly likely” — for Obama and just 35 percent said the same about McCain.
Nearly two out of three voters today are pessimistic — “just somewhat likely/not that likely” — about McCain’s ability, in spite of his own reform record, to break free from President Bush and become a genuine change agent.
Humphrey, with a truly remarkable Senate record of having brought about real change, used the campaign slogan, “Some people talk about change, others cause it.” But to no avail. Like McCain now, Humphrey in 1968 was belittled as the “the more of the same” candidate.
McCain, a card-carrying conservative, of course is quite different in many respects from Humphrey, an unapologetic liberal. In fact, his campaign themes are much more daring. He and Gov. Sarah Palin argue that the Republicans have spent too much; that Republicans have gone “native” and let Washington change them, instead of changing Washington; that Republicans have let down the country and have robbed the people of their faith and confidence in their own government.
But wait, McCain and Palin have a solution to all the problems the Republicans have caused: Vote Republican! That’s where McCain and Humphrey are completely different.
Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.