Sunday, June 03, 2007

Electioneering, Chapter Three

This is from a paper I wrote for the Socialist Party, USA in August, 1983.


The New Hampshire Democratic presidential primary of 1968 was the first electoral test for Senator Eugene McCarthy as he sought to challenge President Lyndon Johnson on a platform of opposition to the Vietnam War.

Unfortunately for the Senator, this first-of-the-season primary, the one that traditionally sets the pace for the remainder of the campaign, was being fought on what seemed to be Johnson territory: a generally conservative state, proud of its patriotism (“Live Free or Die” declared even its license plates), whose political leaders were almost solidly behind the war effort. The outlook, it was said, was for a resounding Johnson victory.

But when the votes were counted, the result sent shock waves through the political scene. There could no longer be any doubt that opposition to what had become known as “Johnson’s War” was so widespread that support for that war was no longer politically tenable. Lyndon Johnson’s position had been undermined to the point where his very ability to stay in office, indeed, even to get his party’s nomination, was openly questioned. There’s good reason to believe his political fate was sealed that February day in New Hampshire.

That story is likely familiar to many. What is often forgotten, however, is that Eugene McCarthy did not win that election. In fact, he lost in what would’ve otherwise been considered a landslide: Lyndon Johnson gathered some 60% of the vote to McCarthy’s 40%.

And therein lies an important lesson for socialists in judging our electoral efforts: the difference between “victory” and “success.” For while it’s true that Lyndon Johnson won 60% of the vote, he was expected to get 80% - and that fact that McCarthy was able to draw fully one-fourth of Johnson’s voters under what had to be nearly ideal conditions for the President was proof positive of a fundamental shift in the national debate on Vietnam, from “Do we get out?” to “When do we get out?”

In short, while Eugene McCarthy was not victorious in his challenge to Lyndon Johnson’s office, he made a highly successful challenge to LBJ’s policies.

We, as members of a minor political party, espousing what is in the US today an emphatically minority position, need to learn how to judge our efforts in terms of hard, bottom-line politics: Not in terms of who won or lost, or what parties won or lost, but of impact on policies. That’s the real issue for us.

When I first ran for Congress in 1980, I sent out a fund appeal which included the following:

“My decision to run was made neither hastily nor lightly. The hard political reality is that obstacles to a victorious campaign are likely insurmountable....

“But obstacles to a successful campaign are far less, because the proper measure of success isn’t victory but effectiveness in raising issues - challenges and, more importantly, alternatives....

“With energy and commitment, that success can be achieved: We can be heard and we can make a difference, and with your help I and those here working with me will make a difference.”

My total vote come November was small: less, in fact, than 1% and about a third of what I’d mentally been shooting for. A success or a failure? At first glance, a failure to almost qualify as an outright waste of time.

But consider this: The incumbent, a moderately-liberal Democrat in a moderately-conservative Republican district, had spent his entire political career looking, in a symbolic sense, over his right shoulder to see who was coming up from behind. Now, for the first time, he had to take an occasional glance over his left shoulder, concerned that a candidate with a clearly articulated platform (He wrote me after the election, saying “I admire your grasp of the issues.”) could gather enough of his supporters to threaten his position.

The result? In 1981, for the first time, he voted against the MX. In January 1982, he endorsed the nuclear freeze the very day petitions in its support were presented to him by constituents. He has become considerably more active in locally-significant environmental issues, particularly ocean dumping of industrial wastes and sewage. (Indeed, I’ve been told by people directly involved with the 1982 campaign that his office made specific promises to environmental groups of his support on certain issues - promises which, to his credit, he has kept - at least partly because a couple of those groups were considering endorsing me.) And his record on issues such as Central America and South Africa, while fair before, has gotten better.

Some of this, no doubt, can be chalked up to the fact that Republican Ronald Reagan is now president instead of Democrat Jimmy Carter; some of it, even, to coincidence, changes which would’ve occurred even had I not run. But even after allowing for that, I sincerely believe that it’s clear that my running had some impact: This particular member of Congress has been nudged slightly leftward; someone who I referred to during the 1982 campaign as “pretty good but not good enough” is a little bit better. And I call that success. Hard, bottom-line politics-type success.

Indeed, the Socialist Party can claim a fair measure of such success: Proposals from presidential campaign platforms from the early part of this century, denigrated and attacked at the time as threats to freedom and the “American way of life,” were later adopted (albeit in watered-down form), put into practice, and have become so much a part of the American scene that no one imagines being without them. Programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, unemployment insurance and jobs programs, Social Security, child labor laws, and many others are based on ideas originally espoused by socialists. Although we’re still a long way from a truly socialist, cooperative, just society, we have made progress - and progress is success.

This is, in fact, an area where we on the left have much to learn from the right. Another story:

It was the mid-1960s, and the race for Mayor of New York City had spawned three candidates: a liberal Republican, a moderate Democrat, and syndicated columnist William F. Buckley, running for the Conservative Party. In a televised debate, the three were asked what would be the first thing they’d do if elected. The Democrat and Republican gave typical, uninspired, politically correct statements. Buckley answered, “I’d demand a recount.”

The point was, Buckley went into that race knowing he had absolutely no chance of winning. Conservatives were prepared to run and lose, run and lose, over and over again, just trying to get their message out, measuring their successes by inches: a little more media attention here, a few more votes there, a “shift in the wind” somewhere else. Those successes, by virtue of continuing effort, built up - and conservatives began losing by smaller margins, then began winning a few, then finally, in 1980, they almost swept the boards. There were, of course, factors involved beyond earlier conservative election campaigns: the ineptitude and, more importantly, political cowardice of Jimmy Carter, double-digit inflation fired to a significant degree by soaring energy prices, and a socially intolerable sense of “drift,” or loss of “national purpose” among them. But it remains true that the astonishing tide of conservative victories from 1976 to 1980 could not have taken place had that earlier groundwork of acceptance of repeated defeats not been done. The victories were built on a long string of what could well be called successful losses.

We must learn how to make those judgments, how to recognize our successful losses and how to build on them. Impact is success, progress is success, respectful attention even if coupled with disagreement is success, change for the better, even if incremental, is success. Persistence in such successes in our source of future victories.

Always shoot for the victories, but judge your efforts in terms of your success, your hard, bottom-line political success - and never forget the difference.

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