In a recent syndicated column, Roscoe Drummond—articulating in public what many have been saying in private—suggests the possibility of a four-party race in 1972, similar to that of 1948. Drummond casts a radical faction headed by Eugene McCarthy, Senators McGovern, Harris, and Hughes, and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark in the role played by Henry Wallace and his Progressive party in 1948, likens Senators Muskie and Humphrey to the Truman Democrats, sees George Wallace paralleling the Dixiecrats in 1948, with President Nixon assuming the role of Thomas E. Dewey. Though Truman won in 1948, Drummond claims that the Nixon forces relish the prospect of a break by the Democratic Left from a party controlled by Muskie and the centrists. He agrees, arguing that the schismatists of 1972 would have a far more damaging impact on Muskie than Henry Wallace’s breakaway group had on Harry Truman. I doubt that this judgment is correct.
In 1972 some would bolt Muskie or another centrist candidate—those out of office, like Eugene McCarthy and Ramsey Clark; perhaps a Senator or two not up for reelection in the immediate future; the New Left intelligentsia and those of the young and near-young under its influence, together with a sizable number of famous names from the worlds of culture and entertainment. But the great majority of liberal Democratic politicians, especially the officeholders, would remain.
Apart from exaggerating the extent of a left-wing defection, Drummond mistakes the likely effect of such a bolt. Contending that it would prove more serious than that of 1948, he says that “the Wallace party [of 1948] was tainted by Communist participation and the current Democratic Left is free of such taint.” That is certainly true. But the current Democratic Left bears a strong taint of its own. It is not easily labeled—words like “permissiveness” and “soft mindedness” suggest themselves—but its presence is undeniable. Equally undeniable is the fact that it is a political liability, as witness the disaster TV coverage of the 1968 Chicago rampage wrought on the Democrats, and the effectiveness in the same campaign of the anti-Clark “crime in the streets” appeal.
But now as in 1948 much more is involved than taints and images. In 1948 Henry Wallace represented that segment of the old New Deal Left which declined to take seriously the threat of Soviet expansionism. His departure from the Democratic party removed not simply the symbolic taint of Communist association, but the actual influence from the party of a faction that the electorate felt (and with considerable justification) could not be trusted to defend the national interest. Harry Truman, not Thomas Dewey, turned out to be the gainer.
A bolt by part of the Democratic Left in 1972 could in similar fashion prove far more helpful to Muskie or some other candidate of the Center than to Nixon. There are three considerations here.
First, in 1972 the majority of the American people will want to vote for a man who will reaffirm the traditional ideals of equal opportunity for all, special privilege to none, and of even-handed justice under the firm rule of law. Strong feelings are involved; the majority believes that this nation has achieved outstanding successes and that these ground rules have contributed substantially to those successes. No one really thinks that such lofty guidelines have ever been adhered to fully; but most people feel that they have exerted real constraint against gross abuse, and that they still can. What the majority wants is reassurance that the Democratic nominee, if elected, will not put his moral authority behind those who would cater to the tactics of the youthful overprivileged or yield to coercive measures by or on behalf of the underprivileged, lest the system of fair play for all be destroyed in the process. If the apologists for those tactics and those measures bolted the party, such reassurance could more convincingly be expressed.
Second, involvement in a land war on the continent of Asia was a massive mistake, as Eugene McCarthy helped the country to realize. The majority of the American people are clearly in favor of efforts to extricate us from that war. But most people are disturbed by that part of the protest against the war which has taken the form of indictments against the United States as a racist, imperialist, and criminal power. They will not support a candidate who is equivocal about the need to maintain American power as a counterbalance to the power of the Soviet Union and the Communist world in general. On this issue, too, a left-wing defection would be an advantage to the Democratic nominee.
Third, since 1929 economic policy has been the Achilles heel of the Republican party. The Democratic nominee in 1972 will have ample opportunity to exploit that weakness. But he will himself be weakened to the extent that his liberalism, and that of his party, goes beyond certain limits. Most Americans are willing to support a considerable degree of social welfare to soften the impact of economic failure. They are not so much committed to one economic approach or another as they are to an underlying system of values and common understandings. As against more fashionable currents of thought on the Left, the majority affirm that in our past self-interest has been accompanied by moral restraint and by social purpose. The immigrant generations that struggled for a place of decency and honor, and achieved some measure of success, believed that they gave fair value for what they got back. The majority today, silent or otherwise, will not acquiesce in a denial of that heritage, whether in denigration of their forebears or of themselves. Such a denial is implicit in much of the rhetoric of the dissident Left today.
Thus a bolt that would leave the Democratic party free of ideas and attitudes that have attached themselves to it through the dissident Left could be, for a man like Edmund Muskie, or some other candidate of the Center, an immense electoral advantage.