Is Hillary Our Nixon?
My question has nothing to do with secret tapes, dirty tricks, or paranoid anti-Semitism. What I'm thinking of is a comparison to Nixon's relationship with the conservative movement.
After 2004 it became fashionable in progressive grassroots circles to portray Howard Dean as a sort of Goldwater of the left. The comparison was in many ways apt -- while Dean was in no sense an ideological radical like Goldwater, he was the early prophet and catalyst for a self-conscious movement that aimed to re-invigorate and re-partisanize a major political party -- a party that had, in recent years, drifted from its historical principles and found itself consistently wrong-footed by the opposition. After Dean's defeat, we reassured ourselves by remembering how badly Goldwater was beaten in 1964, yet how the movement he founded eventually went on to become the single most powerful political force in America.
What we don't often talk about is the fact that that movement didn't really manage to get one of its own elected until sixteen years later. Richard Nixon, meanwhile, was nobody's favorite -- and certainly not the activist base's. But he was a hard-working career insider, a skilled and determined politician, and he horse-traded his way to the nomination in 1968
, defeating conservative favorite Ronald Reagan, who was judged too inexperienced really to be president.
I've been pondering this for a while, and Jerome Armstrong's frustrated ruminations
on the Hillary steamroller brought it to mind again. Jerome calls the race "Hillary's to lose" and regrets both the failure of purported netroots favorite John Edwards (I like Edwards, but I don't entirely accept this premise) to gain more traction, and Barack Obama's refusal to engage the netroots in a solid partnership. I suppose if one were to draw parallels to 1968, there would be obvious points of comparison between the two Democratic fields -- you have the institutional candidate (Humphrey), the progressive activists' favorite (McCarthy), and the rock star mistrusted by those same activists (RFK).
All interesting enough. But a more instructive comparison for the progressive movement might be between Hillary and Nixon. The right wing, never particularly fond of Nixon, turned on him with a vengeance
after he had been in office for a couple of years. If we wind up with a President Hillary, the progresssive grassroots/netroots could find itself in a similar state. After all we've done, why are we going back to this?
Why are we going back to Bill Clinton and triangulation? Echoes of: Why are we going back to Eisenhower and Keynesianism and internationalism? What really makes the parallel amusingly complete is how Hillary's right-wing enemies, like Nixon's on the left, see her as the embodiment of extremism, while her own party's activists view her as little more than a self-interested centrist.
It's only a general comparison, but it's worth considering. I still would like to see the question of "what is the netroots" problematized, and also to see that question framed within a broader examination of "what is the progressive movement?" Conservatives do this sort of exercise all the time, and I think it's good for them. We may find that the grassroots this time around is not so much weak as it is divided. Either way, though, if we do wind up nominating nobody's favorite centrist insider, we might remember that history says such setbacks are by no means fatal.
Labels: Democrats, Hillary Clinton, movement building, progressives, Richard Nixon