Consider the stunning parallels between the contest for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2008 and the same contest 40 years earlier in 1968, which ended in a party divided. Both contests feature insurgent political campaigns, and the catalyst for the insurgency in both cases is opposition to an unpopular and misconceived war: in 2008 in Iraq, in 1968 in Vietnam.
In both contests, there are senators from Midwestern states: in 2008, Barack Obama from Illinois; in 1968, Eugene McCarthy from Minnesota. Both candidates denounce the usual ways of doing business in Washington and call for a new politics.
Both campaigns draw millions of younger voters to embrace political activism. The masses of young people flocking to Obama recall the hordes of students who became "clean for Gene" and canvassed door-to-door for McCarthy in the early 1968 primaries in New Hampshire and Wisconsin.
Moreover, both draw tens of thousands of supporters to their public events. During the summer of 1968, leading up to the August Democratic convention in Chicago, McCarthy spoke to crowds of 15,000 in downtown Pittsburgh, 30,000 at Look Park in Houston, Texas, and 50,000 at Fenway Park in Boston.
There are of course, differences. While Obama is a consistently inspiring speaker, McCarthy was an uneven performer, even though his earlier speech at the 1960 Democratic convention, nominating Adlai Stevenson for president, is one of the great political orations in American history. Obama is a newcomer to Washington, having served only two years in the Senate before beginning his presidential quest, while McCarthy served in the U.S. Congress for two decades, first in the House and later the Senate, before running for president.
In 1968, after President Lyndon B. Johnson eked out a narrow win over McCarthy in New Hampshire, either McCarthy or the other anti-Vietnam War candidate, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, won every remaining primary, except for two states, Florida and Ohio, that voted for favorite sons. Yet, when the Democrats met in Chicago in 1968 to nominate a candidate for president, after LBJ had withdrawn in March and RFK was assassinated in June, they chose Hubert H. Humphrey, Johnson's vice president. Humphrey had not entered, let alone won, a single Democratic primary contest.
The reason for Humphrey's convention victory was that a majority of the convention delegates were unelected, and it was these unelected delegates who determined the outcome. The result was a Democratic Party split asunder. This split between anti-Vietnam War Democrats and pro-Vietnam War Humphrey Democrats helped elect the 1968 Republican presidential candidate, Richard Nixon.
The past is not necessarily prologue. Yet 40 years later, the Democratic Party faces the possibility of another self-defeating split caused by the selection of the less-popular presidential candidate by unelected convention delegates.
In 2008, superdelegates, who are unelected, have the power to determine the Democratic presidential candidate. Obama has won more votes, more elected delegates, and more states than his principal opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton, has. The latest national polls show Democrats preferring Obama over Clinton and Obama with a better chance of defeating the presumptive Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain.
These 2008 superdelegates, like the unelected delegates in 1968, once again could split the party and help elect a Republican. If the Democratic nominating convention rejects the will of the Democratic primary voters, the risks of electing the Republican candidate may be just as grave in 2008 as they were in 1968.