02/26/2008 01:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Robert F. Kennedy vs. Hubert Humphrey 1968/2008

In 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy had illustrated in his primary victories that he could be victorious by generating enthusiasm, increasing participation, and swelling the ranks of registered Democratic voters. At the time of Kennedy's death, Vice President Hubert Humphrey controlled about 1000 delegates of the 1,312 needed to win the nomination. However, many key Democratic power brokers in Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, and other states awaited the results of the California and New York primaries before committing to any candidate. Today, I suppose we would call them "super delegates."

The 700 or so delegates with whom Kennedy held strong influence represented a far different Democratic Party than did Humphrey's slate. Kennedy had tapped into a community activist sentiment that had defied the Vice President. In 2008, the Clintons look like reincarnations of the establishment Johnson-Humphrey Democrats of 1968 -- out of touch on the heated issue of a foreign war and wedded to a static set of bureaucratic structures, while the nascent Obama insurgency is clearly the rightful heir to RFK's electoral project of 1968.

Kennedy's presidential campaign sought wherever possible to ally itself with community organizations and local activists, which were then drifting away from the party. His new coalition he hoped would provide a counterweight to the politics of racial division, which has become a Republican mainstay in presidential elections since Richard Nixon launched his "Southern strategy" that same election year. He proved that the party is at its best when it is energized from below. Obama is demonstrating that this is still the case.

In recent years, leading Democratic politicians -- comprising the Bill Clinton/DLC-wing of the party -- had been fishing for minnows while sitting atop a whale: the party focused on a slender thread of white, suburban swing voters, while largely ignoring the vast expanse of working people who were becoming increasingly disillusioned by unfair trade agreements, deteriorating living standards, and the choke hold of corporate interests on Washington. Forty years ago, Robert Kennedy showed that the party must invest in mobilizing ordinary citizens, getting people registered to vote and out to the polls, and giving them a reason to vote. Obama is following this winning course.

The current rivalry between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama has less to do with the candidates' race or gender than it does with the struggle between the corporatist, Republican-Lite wing of the party and the grassroots labor-based progressive wing of the party. What is playing out nationally right now is kind of like the Ned Lamont-Joe Lieberman fight in Connecticut in 2006. Democratic primary voters rejected Lieberman's tepid Bush-Lite politics for a candidate who opposed the Iraq occupation. Lieberman dropped out of the party (good riddance) but his immense ego led him to screw the party as an "Independent"; now he's endorsing Republican John McCain for president. Those are the kinds of "Democrats" to whom Obama's supporters are showing the door. Bill and Hillary Clinton are far to close to the Lieberman wing of the party.

Hillary Clinton touts her "experience" during the Clinton Administration but the Clinton presidency can be best understood as an integral part of the "Reagan Revolution." Under Clinton's watch the pharmaceutical, financial services, armaments, telecommunications, and energy industries experienced a historic wave of mergers and became more consolidated than at any time since the Gilded Age. Clinton's Anti-Trust Division of the Justice Department was no different than Reagan's. Clinton put an end to "welfare as we know it," and in his dreary second inaugural address he proclaimed, like Reagan, "government is not the solution." He spent more political capital passing NAFTA over the objections of the labor unions than on any other piece of legislation. Following the advice of Republican arch-sleazebag Dick Morris he "triangulated" against the progressive wing of the party over and over again. He helped deregulate the financial services and telecommunications industries, doing away with the New Deal's Glass-Steagall firewalls on Wall Street, and giving Rupert Murdoch the power to establish Fox News. Clinton "went to China" in his own way.

The Clinton Democrats mimic Robert Kennedy's legacy in form, while ignoring its content. Progressive politics cannot be about "focus groups," moderate swing voters, corporate donors, and poll-driven micro-policies. The party of Franklin Roosevelt must take clear stands that resonate with working people and inspire citizens to participate in shaping their own destinies. Kennedy had raised fundamental questions about the limits of America democracy, about racial injustice, income inequality, and the role of the U.S. military in the world; his core constituency became energized as a result. Call it the "audacity of hope."

Today the nation is light-years away from the neo-liberal consensus and centrist policies of the 1990s. The Republican Southern Insurgency of Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, and especially George W. Bush pushed the nation to the extreme edge of right-wing politics. They combined unmitigated arrogance with astonishing incompetence. They told Americans to cower in their homes with duct tape and plastic sheets. They waved the flag and smeared critics for their lack of "patriotism." They jettisoned the moderate northeastern wing of their party, and ruled with a 50 percent-plus-one-vote governing philosophy that alienated just about everyone who was not part of their faction. By the end of the first year of Bush's second term, after he tried to destroy Social Security and Hurricane Katrina ravaged the gulf coast, the nation descended into a long period of darkness. Today, it's only natural that the mood of the electorate is not conducive to the Clintons' brand of quiescent centrism. The Republicans overreached and John McCain is the Bob Dole of 2008.

With hope, after the 2008 elections, the Republicans will become a 40 percent party, a regional backwater largely restricted to the South (where they belong). Maybe they can take their army of right-wing radio propagandists with them. The Obama grassroots movement can only be understood in the context of the damage George W. Bush wrought these past years. It's amazing that experienced politicians like Bill and Hillary Clinton so misread the current political climate.

Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign had ambitious plans for the post-California primary period: A vigorous push for winning New York's 190 delegate votes in mid-June, followed by a quick tour of several European capitals -- including high-profile meetings with heads of state, all of whom opposed the Vietnam War -- and then a push to bring the strongest possible alliance of forces to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that August.

A brief trek to Europe might seem like a risky diversion in the heat of a national campaign, but Kennedy planned to do so because the Vietnam War had alienated some of the United States' most important allies. Kennedy believed it was vital to send a clear signal, especially to the Europeans, that he was serious about ending the war. It was also cunning politics at home because it would remind the American people that he was already a world leader in his own right.

George W. Bush's occupation of Iraq has alienated just about the entire population of Earth. In Europe, the level of animosity toward Bush is nothing short of astounding. Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq, which Hillary Clinton and other "centrist" Democrats supported, was the biggest strategic blunder in recent history (as Barack Obama likes to point out). The next president will need the assistance of our traditional allies to begin the arduous task of extricating American troops from Iraq. Obama should consider taking a quick trip to a few European capitals sometime this summer during a lull in the campaign season.