The shadows of 1968 hang over the election of 2008. But if the Democrats learn the right lessons from the candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, the tragedy of 1968 can yield a Democratic victory in 2008. Most of all, they need to remember the often-maligned virtues of partisanship and a fighting spirit.
All Democrats need to remember the folly of McCarthy, and his supporters, who sat on the sidelines or acted with reluctance when Humphrey ran against Richard Nixon. For all his limitations, Humphrey was a far better man than Nixon and would have made a far better president. Pretending that there was no difference between them, or an insufficient difference, was folly.
A repetition of this logic has no place in 2008. For all the recent nastiness of the Democratic race, which is largely the fault of Hillary Clinton and her supporters, the fundamental fact is that the policy differences between Clinton and Barack Obama are minor. Whoever wins the nomination deserves other Democrats' support.
For Obama, there is also a lesson to be learned from Kennedy's last campaign: Kennedy was a fighter. At moments--and I write as an Obama supporter whose first great political hero was Robert Kennedy-- the disdain for politics that I sense in Obama and some of his camp reminds me of McCarthy and his backers. Kennedy was many things, but he was emphatically a politician who knew how to wage a tough yet compassionate campaign that won white, black, and Hispanic votes. Obama could learn a lesson from him.
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