Freelining with Mike Freeman: The presidential election of 1968 … and today.

Does the platform that Vice President Hubert Humphrey ran on in the 1968 presidential campaign tell us something about our current Democratic president?

Is the needle on the record player stuck?
Are we hearing the same lyrics over and over again?
In theory, you’d have to say no. Because what I’m referring to are the unusual similarities between the presidential election of 1968, and the one we’re heading into this fall. It’s almost as if the two leading Democrats and the two top Republicans in those very different political years were reading from the same playbook.
On the other hand, anyone who was around in 1968 and remembers the election between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey are probably thinking there are absolutely no similarities between 1968 and 2012. In fact, the issues then and now are almost exactly the opposite.
Today, the economy is struggling to shake off the impact of a long recession. Friday’s unemployment report showed that only 80,000 job got created in June, barely more than the 77,000 created in May, while the jobless rate stayed at 8.2 percent.
In contrast, the economy was booming in 1968, and had been growing fast for years. Business had been on the upswing for 95 months, since February 1961, the month after John Kennedy came into office at the tail end of a recession. It was one of the longest economic advances in the nation’s history.
In 1968, foreign policy was a much bigger, and highly contentious, issue. The war in Vietnam showed no signs of ending, and in fact U.S. troop numbers peaked in 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson approved raising the maximum number of Americans in Vietnam to 549,500. The year was also the most expensive in the Vietnam war, as the government spent $77.4 billion, the equivalent of $517 billion in 2012 dollars. Likewise, 1968 also produced the deadliest week of the Vietnam War for the U.S. during the Tet Offensive in Feb. 11–17, when 543 Americans were killed in action, and 2,547 got wounded.
Student protests and riots against the war continued throughout the year, and climaxed in late August at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, when large numbers of demonstrators clashed with Chicago police. Rioting took place between both sides, in bloody altercations that were well publicized by the mass media.
In contrast, foreign policy issues are barely a blip on the radar screen this year, even as the United States continues its involvement in the now decades old war in Afghanistan.
Compared to the economy, foreign policy hardly gets much mention on the campaign trail by either side, and when it does, the focus is more often on the European debt crisis and its impact on the U.S. economy – again, economics over a debate about war and its consequences.
Not even President Obama’s announcement in October 2011 that he would get all U.S. troops out of Iraq by Jan. 1, formally ending the war that began in the spring of 2003, sets off much in the way of debate anymore. Americans are focused inward this year, on the challenges facing the economic climate.
So if the economy wasn’t the focus in 1968 and war isn’t the top issue today, why do 2012 and 1968 seem so similar?
Start with the candidates, and their platforms … and their vision.
Humphrey was a senator from Minnesota who become President Johnson’s pick for vice president in 1964. In the next few years, Congress enacted the Johnson administration’s Medicare and Medicaid plans, to cover the health care needs of seniors and low income families and individuals. Humphrey was a longtime advocate of having the federal government meets the needs of those who could not afford health care ….
…. just as President Obama advocates today with the universal health care law.
Humphrey was a foreign policy hawk or interventionist, who believed the United States had a role to play in combating forces overseas that appeared to threaten our way of life. In 1968, that foe was Soviet Communism.
Today, the foe is Islamic terrorism, and in his first year in office, President Obama considered sending as many as 40,000 additional troops — a genuine “surge” –to Afghanistan, as then-war commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal had requested. Obama ultimately approved a troop surge of 30,000, with a deadline for their return.
And before becoming vice president, Humphrey was known as a strong proponent of civil rights legislation. He was a sponsor of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination against African Americans and women, including racial segregation, overturning Jim Crow laws in scores of southern states.
Today, President Obama has been a vocal advocate of civil rights for gays and lesbians. He convinced Congress to repeal the ban on gays serving in the military, and now supports gay marriage.
In a remarkable way, it seems like the platform that Humphrey ran on in 1968 is roughly the same as what Obama is advocating this year. In some ways, it’s almost as if the Obama administration picked up where the Johnson administration left off, reviving the “Great Society” notion of a federally funded social safety net, while also supporting civil rights and an internationalist foreign policy. In the course of 44 years, the political climate is different in a lot of ways. But for Democrats, the issues are remarkably similar.
There are also interesting parallels between Nixon and today’s GOP nominee. In 1968, Nixon was considered a pragmatic conservative, a moderate who supported the basic concept of the federally funded New Deal programs, but preferred to operate them on a smaller scale, more geared toward the free market and taking more of a pro-business approach. He was a moderate on social issues who supported the Civil Rights Act and believed that issues like abortion were best left to the states to decide. He was a foreign policy conservative.
Mitt Romney also appears to support large government programs designed to help people – as governor of Massachusetts, he did support a universal health care law that requires people who don’t have insurance to buy it or face a penalty, as the Obama plan does – only he seems to want to operate it on a smaller scale, taking more of a free market and pro-business approach. He’s a moderate on social issues who supported gay rights as the Bay State’s governor and thinks issues like gay marriage should be left to the states to decide. He’s a foreign policy conservative.
Nixon won the election of 1968, at a time when Americans seemed ready for change after eight years of Democratic rule. They were clearly looking to head in a more conservative direction than what Johnson and Humphrey were advocating.
Will history repeat itself? Will the moderately conservative, pro-business Republican beat the Democrat with a vision for an expanded federal role in creating a “Great Society”? Again, it’s hard to draw clear parallels. Foreign policy was an explosive issue back then, but not today, and the economy is an major issue today in ways it never was back in 1968.
But it’s still fascinating that in the course of nearly five decades, the two major parties are offering something eerily similar to what they presented in 1968. The issues of that critical year, hauntingly, linger on today.

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