Politics & Policy

What If 1968 Never Happened?

Looking back on 50 years of politics since Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Plus, Jonathan Bernstein’s morning links.

What if?

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

We just passed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. It’s not hard to argue that this might have been the assassination with the largest political consequences of the 1960s. Let’s play a little What If.

It’s virtually certain that Kennedy would not have won the Democratic nomination for president in Chicago. In the pre-reform system, winning a few primaries just wasn’t that important. As long as Lyndon Johnson backed Hubert Humphrey, Humphrey had the delegates necessary to win.

But with Kennedy alive, the disastrous convention might well have been very different, especially if (as Nelson W. Polsby once speculated) Kennedy had been offered and accepted the vice presidential nod. With that, the Democrats would have been able to come a lot closer to being united at their convention, and it’s hardly implausible that a Humphrey/Kennedy ticket might have defeated Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. 

The substantive changes had Humphrey won would likely have been enormous. The Vietnam War would almost certainly have ended much more quickly. Great Society programs would have (at least) had another four years of strong White House support. Nixon wound up putting four justices on the Supreme Court during his first term; presumably the two most liberal Humphrey picks would have been at least as liberal as Lewis Powell and Harry Blackmun, and the other two would have been far more liberal than Warren Burger and William Rehnquist. 

Beyond that? It’s anyone’s guess. In real life, 1972 was a great year to run as an incumbent. Would the same have been true for a Democrat seeking the fourth consecutive term for his party? It’s easy to speculate about. Perhaps Humphrey gets re-elected but then rapidly becomes unpopular when the energy crisis and the deep 1974-1975 recession hit — and then Ronald Reagan gets the economic turmoil of the back half of the 1970s, with Democrats regaining the White House in 1980. On the other hand, maybe the oil shock and the recession don’t happen, and the party in office after 1972 stays in office in 1976. 

The most intriguing thing to me is the possibility that partisan alignments wind up differently. One possibility: With the defeat of the Southern Strategy in 1968, Republicans edge away from race-based appeals and wind up competitive for black votes; at the same time, a healthier Democratic Party in the 1970s finds ways to create cross-ethnic alliances in many areas of the South. Without oxygen from the Supreme Court and the White House, backlash politics never really takes off as a major strain in a major party. But another possibility also looms: Remember thermostatic public opinion. Four or more years of an out-and-out liberal president after 1968 not only turns public opinion conservative, but also sparks a more severe backlash on civil rights. 

At worst? True Jim Crow Dixiecrat politicians don’t become Republicans; they either moderate their views or they just die out. Their successors were certainly very conservative, and they did push back on civil rights around the edges, but for the most part, they accepted the basics. In other words, it’s possible to imagine even worse outcomes than we got.

To go back to the beginning: Vice presidential candidates rarely move votes, and unified party conventions are even less likely to make any difference in the fall. But 1968 may well have been different enough that a reconciliation between Kennedy and Humphrey might have made a real difference. 

My favorite book about 1968 remains the Garry Wills classic “Nixon Agonistes.” If I had time to read one more book, however, I suspect Michael A. Cohen’s recent “American Maelstrom” would be very worthwhile. Check them out!

1. Lilliana Mason on winning, partisanship and group attachment. Important.

2. Christopher R. Berry and Anthony Fowler at Legbranch on the power of committee chairs.

3. Sam Levine on the first Maine election with ranked-choice voting. As I’ve said: I’m not a big fan of the system, but I do like having it up and running in one state. Let’s gather some information on how it works in practice in the U.S. in a statewide, partisan context. 

4. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Justin Fox on Trump and win-win negotiations.

5. David Graham on what’s odd about Trump’s assertions of authority

6. Amy Walter on “wave” elections. Worth reading, but I’m not convinced that “wave” is a useful word, or metaphor, or whatever it is. Democrats will this November pick up some number of House seats, gain or lose by some amount or break even in the Senate, and make gains in statehouses. How to characterize that doesn’t seem like an analytic task to me; it’s a job for the spinners. Nor is it a helpful to making predictions at this point — there’s no “wave” variable that, if it kicks in, means an extra bonus of seat gains. 

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    To contact the author of this story:
    Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

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