Almost forty years ago, Bill Clinton and I sailed across the Atlantic to take up residence as students at Oxford University. I recall only two things from that trip. The first was becoming seasick and retiring to my small cabin, followed a few hours later by a knock on my door and the appearance of a tall, lanky southerner with chicken soup in one hand and crackers in the other. Bill Clinton didn’t say “I feel your pain” — that phrase came years later on the campaign trail — but I was nonetheless touched by his empathy and generosity. And despite my queasy stomach we talked long into the night, mostly about America and what had happened to it.
Both of us had been politically active, but now felt relief in getting away from the turbulence and disappointments that marked the nation. A month or so before, Chicago had been the scene of a riotous Democratic convention during which numbers of young people who had been lured into politics by Eugene McCarthy’s antiwar campaign and then by Robert Kennedy’s rousing call for social change were beaten by the police. By then Kennedy had been assassinated; McCarthy’s presidential bid had gone nowhere; the Democrats were in the process of nominating as president Hubert Humphrey; and the Republicans, Richard Nixon. The Vietnam War continued unabated. Several American cities were again in flames.
My other recollection from that voyage was finding Bobby Baker in the ship’s stateroom. That he had chosen to travel to England at this time, on this particular ship, seemed a cruel joke, suggesting there was no real escape. For readers who don’t remember, Baker had been a crony of Lyndon Johnson’s secretary to the Democratic Party when when LBJ was Senate Majority Leader, until Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General, had exposed his alleged deals with organized crime, and Baker was forced to resign. Kennedy’s investigation had led to allegations that Johnson himself received kickbacks from military contractors. It was tawdry stuff, rendered even tawdrier when several newspapers found evidence that Baker had also been involved in procuring women for JFK.
Why do I trouble you with these reminiscences? Because the upheavals of 1968 splintered the Democratic Party and marked the beginning of the ascendance of a new Republican majority coalition consisting of neo-conservatives on foreign policy, supply-side tax cutters on the economy, and evangelical Christians on social policy. The Democratic establishment drifted into the comforting somnolence of a seemingly solid majority in Congress, losing touch with the white working class that had been at the center of the New Deal coalition. Their ideals shattered, left all but abandoned politics –some vanishing into the hills of Vermont or the small towns of the Pacific Northwest to meditate and find spiritual enlightenment; the more academically inclined disappearing into hermeneutics and deconstructionism; blacks gays, and women losing themselves in identity politics; and the few who remained (including Bill and me) supporting George McGovern in his disastrous run for president in 1972.
Since then, it’s been basically right-wing politics — Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the two Bushes, punctuated by Jimmy Carter’s undistinguished single term. And, oh yes, my old friend’s administration, of which I am proud to have been a member. But Bill Clinton did not move the Democrats or the nation left. He moved the Democrats to the middle. And by warding off Newt Gingrich and his Republican congress, Clinton kept the nation essentially where it was.
Are we approaching another turning point, like 1968, but one that reverses the great pendulum of American politics and moves the nation back to the left? The George W. Bush presidency has been such an abject failure — only 26 percent of Americans approve of the job he has done — that America may be ready. Polls show a significant majority of Americans believing the country is off track. The economy is heading toward a recession, or worse. Inequality of income and wealth are wider than they’ve been in a century. Iraq is a mess, and America’s image has plummeted in much of the rest of the world.
But there won’t be a return to the pre-1968 left, regardless of who’s elected next November.
Although John McCain, the presumptive Republican standard-bearer, supports reform of the immigration laws, initially opposed Bush’s generous 2001 and 2003 tax cuts for the rich, has sponsored campaign-reform laws, and doesn’t cow tow to the evangelical right, McCain is no heir to Robert Kennedy. He has shown no interest in reducing the trend toward widening inequality or overcoming remaining barriers to upward mobility. He has reversed his earlier views on the Bush tax cuts. And he is an unredeemed hawk on foreign policy.
What of the Democratic candidates? John Edwards, perhaps the most left-leaning of the three major Democratic candidates, and the only one who consistently emphasized the widening income gap and the worsening plight of America’s poor, was forced out of the race after a string of Democratic primary defeats. Of the two who remain, Hillary Rodham Clinton is no sixties lefty. As a senator, she voted in favor of Bush?s Iraqi war resolution in the fall of 2002, and, more recently, in favor of certifying Iran’s Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. She also voted in favor of a ban on burning the American flag. She wants universal health care but won’t support a single payer plan, which is perhaps the best way to control medical costs, although obviously no guarantee. She won’t commit to raising taxes on the rich to finance any social program including health care, except for rolling back the Bush tax cut for the wealthy. She won’t even pay the large, looming cost of the baby boomers’ Social Security by raising the portion of income subject to Social Security taxes.
Barack Obama at least has the courage to demand that the rich pay more for Social Security, but his health plan is no more radical than Clinton’s. He talks more openly than she does about the need to reduce inequality but has not been specific about to what extent he’d raise taxes on the very wealthy to pay for social programs, beyond reversing Bush’s tax cut. He has been against the Iraqi War from the start but so far has avoided much detail about how and when he’d extract American troops or deploy them elsewhere.
Yet the striking thing about Obama, and the enthusiasm he has stirred up, has little to do with the specifics of the policies he advances. It is rather his almost pitch-perfect echo of the John F. Kennedy we heard in 1960 and the Robert Kennedy last heard in 1968. It is a call for national unity and national sacrifice — not in the interest of military prowess but in the cause of social justice, both in the nation and around the world. His appeal is for more civic engagement, not necessarily more government. He has the voice and wields the techniques of a community organizer (which he was on the streets of Chicago), asking people to join together, calling the nation to form a more perfect union. Not since the sixties has America been so starkly summoned to its ideals. Not since then has America– including, especially, the nation’s youth –been so inspired.
It is easy for cynics to write off Obamania as a passing fad, as lofty rhetoric that can’t and won’t hold up on close inspection — another bout of the kind of naive and romantic enthrallment that occasionally claims American voters until common sense sets in. This is surely what Hillary Clinton and my friend from forty years ago are counting on. But if the Clintons stop to think back to what they felt and understood in those years leading up to 1968, they may come to a different conclusion, as have I.
Neither John F. Kennedy nor his brother Robert were idealists. They were realists who understood the importance of idealism in the service of realism. They grasped the central political fact that little can be achieved in Washington unless or until the public is energized and mobilized to push for it; the status quo is simply too powerful. The ideals they enunciated helped mobilized the nation politically. That mobilization contributed to the subsequent passage of civil rights and voting rights laws, Medicare, and environmental protection. For purposes of practical electoral strategy as well as high-minded moral aspiration, they never tired of reminding the nation of its founding principles — most fundamentally, that all men are created equal.
Robert B. Reich is Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. He has written eleven books (including his most recent, Supercapitalism). Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s “Marketplace” are heard by nearly five million people. This entry originally appeared on his blog.
Copyright 2007 Robert B. Reich