Democrats: Mirror Image

Almost anyone who remembers the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention would like to forget it. Yet as the Democrats return to the Windy City for the first time in 28 years, theirs is a very different party, precisely because of 1968.

While the 1996 convention will probably lack drama, 1968 had an oversupply of it. In the primary-season runup to the convention, civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered and cities from Washington to Chicago burned for days. On the evening of his great victory in the California primary, Robert F. Kennedy joined his presidential brother as a modern American martyr. Incumbent president Lyndon Johnson, who four years earlier had won a landslide victory, took himself out of the running. He did so after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam stunned the American public and Sen. Eugene McCarthy's victory in the New Hampshire primary stunned LBJ.

At the convention, a nasty floor fight broke out over whether to seat the all-white official Mississippi delegation or a mixed-race reform group. While Vice President Hubert Humphrey's nomination was never really in doubt, challengers had enough votes to make trouble and platform speeches were contentious. Outside the hall, police clubbed demonstrators and demonstrators fought back.

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That year marked the end of Franklin Roosevelt's Democratic coalition of Northern white liberals, Southern whites, blacks, and labor. Southern whites voted in droves for Alabama Gov. George Wallace, then left for the GOP, where increasing numbers of them remain.

After 1968, liberal activists gained control of the Democrats' machinery and took positions that drove moderate voters away. Conservative Democrats, still a powerful force in 1968, are dwindling.

Today's Democratic Party, led ironically by a white Southerner, is as split between its moderate and liberal wings as the GOP is between moderates and conservatives. The White House will try to do in Chicago what the Dole campaign did in San Diego: keep controversy off the platform and stress unity and diversity.

Protests over welfare reform, which has split Democrats as the abortion debate has split Republicans, will be muted. Industrial and teachers' unions will play a role similar to that of the Christian Coalition at the GOP conclave: an important and noisy constituency, but not one running the show.

The public and reporters should expect little news out of this convention, unless the president announces his own plan for a tax cut or some similar move. The goals are to show the president in a positive light, convince voters he deserves four more years, and emerge with a post-convention "bounce" that establishes a solid lead over Bob Dole in the polls as public opinion shakes out in early September.

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