A much despised war, a hated president, and a Democratic primary process characterized by wild ups and downs. I'm talking, of course, of the year 1968. The nomination race we on the left have been watching and participating in over the last many, many months has been terrifically compelling -- so much so that it's got this singular vibe about it. But let's face it, not much in American life is entirely unique. And particularly when we look ahead to the Democratic Convention to be held in Denver this summer, it's tempting to conclude that we've been in a place somewhat like this before.
The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago saw hippies, yippies, college kids, high-schoolers, veterans, and middle Americans descend upon that city, motivated by two main impulses. The first is familiar: the rejection of a seemingly endless war (Vietnam, of course) and the revulsion with a Democratic Party apparent complicity in it -- embodied by candidate and Vice President Hubert Humphrey. The second: a global momentum towards democracy, transparency, and anti-authoritarianism; it was in that spirit that the protesters in Chicago get up legal workshops, health clinics, and freedom concerts.
In Denver today, activists are gathering under the banner of Recreate '68 to try to gin up that same spirit of activism to greet the Democratic National Convention that will take place in that city this August. The Recreate '68 team has been meeting with city and federal officials to secure permits and lay ground rules for convention-week events. I recently got on the phone with Glenn Spagnuolo, Recreate '68s' spokesperson and a member of its organizing committee. Glenn's predicting a turnout of about 50,000 people if Clinton is the nominee going into the convention, and about "half that" if Obama's already gotten the nod. Glenn jokes about Clinton: "She'll be our best organizer."
I laughed, because that's funny. And maybe Glenn's right. But that seems to me to be too simple and clean a read on where the Democratic Party finds itself today. And the reasons why point to the messiness inherent in an effort to completely recapture a year gone by.
We find ourselves in 2008 with two potential nominees. In one corner we have a sitting senator who spent eight years in the White House who looks more and more like a legitimate underdog everyday. She also happens to be a white woman, endorsed by such heroes of the civil right's movement -- a movement that didn't exactly embraced female leadership -- as Rep. John Lewis. And then in the other corner, we've got an upstart politician who has been embraced by no less an establishment figure as Ted Kennedy and no less an inside player as Tom Daschle. And on the Iraq war -- honestly, for all but the wonkiest of policy wonks finding daylight between their positions on ending it requires a magnifying glass and good eyesight.
If your thing is raging against the machine, in 2008 it can be difficult to know which direction to face.
Still, if the '68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago teaches any sort of lessons at all, its that what happens in Denver this summer stands a good chance of setting the Democratic Party's path in the years ahead. Humphrey's apparent coronation by the party establishment led to the scrapping of the superdelegate system. (Oh yeah, we've been on this merry-go-round before.) And the violence in the streets of Chicago during convention week left Humphrey a battered candidate leading a party that looked to be at war with itself -- smoothing McCain's, I mean Nixon's, path to the White House.
Barack Obama has a beautiful line that he's been using regularly on the stump, an apparent reference to the widespread appeal of this campaign: "We are the ones we have been waiting for." It's a sure applause getter. No matter who's the nominee, when Democrats and protesters convene in Denver's streets, hotels, and convention center this summer, the question will be: "Okay, we're here -- where to next?"