The North-South split in the Democratic Party has often been bitter. But Democratic politicians have always understood the nature of that schism, with its roots stemming from the Civil War.
Party leaders knew how to deal with that problem. Usually, putting a southerner in the vice-presidential slot would be enough to bring the party together for the battle against the Republicans.
But the Democrats don't understand the nature of the deep rift today -- one that is causing a sizable number of party faithful to coalesce around Kennedy and others, apparently a larger number, to rally around Carter. And they don't know how to deal with it other than hope it will go away before they have to take on the Republicans in November.
To begin with, the candidates themselves dislike each other -- and "dislike" is an understatement.
Carter, according to an associate, thinks Kennedy is "two-faced" for attacking him now on programs which Kennedy himself supported and for running against him after earlier pledging he would not do so.
On the other hand, a source close to Kennedy says the Senator "has absolutely no use for Carter." He says Kennedy thinks Carter is "spineless" -- and that he cannot forgive a Carter slur about him during the 1976 campaign.
So, unfortunately, the problem is personal.
But it goes beyond that. The party cleavage has been taking shape over a period of years, more discernible at some times than at others. It wasn't there with Roosevelt. Nor with Truman. Nor Stevenson. The beginnings, it seems, came with the advent of the John Kennedy bid for the presidency in 1960.
It was difficult to call the initial split an ideological one since the battle among Democrats centered mainly on Humphrey against Kennedy, both of whom appealed to the liberal Democrats. And Humphrey papered over the difference considerably by working hard for Kennedy after he had lost out to him in 1960, in the fall campaign, and later in dealing with Kennedy initiatives when they reached the Senate.
But resentment remained among those many Democrats who felt that Kennedy had unfairly taken the nomination away from Humphrey whose record and distinguished public service had earned him the right to the presidency.
Also, many Democrats simply believed that Kennedy had "bought" the nomination -- with funds provided by Kennedy's father.
Thus, a substantial anti-Kennedy sentiment arose and then persisted in the Democratic Party, although it was obscured for a while in the glow of Kennedy's Camelot.
This feeling surfaced anew with Robert Kennedy's effort to take the Democratic nomination away from Johnson and, then, from Humphrey.
And today, once again, this intraparty rift is with us.
Now Carter is not in the direct line of Humphrey. Political lineages are always hard to trace, blurred as they are by all kinds of political accommodations. But Carter is the beneficiary of support from those who are in that direct line: for example, Senator Muskie, former running-mate of Humphrey, who remains outwardly neutral but passed the word along to key Democrats in Maine to give their backing to Carter. Or Humphrey's protege, Fritz Mondale, who is doing a masterful job persuading Democrats, particularly liberal Democrats who might naturally support a Kennedy, to get behind the President.
Of course, you could argue that there is indeed an ideological difference between Carter and Kennedy. Kennedy says there is, calling Carter a GOP conservative. But in looking at Carter's domestic proposals one finds a strong commitment to social goals -- the sort of commitment that liberals hail. The difference between the two men on domestic issues, if any, seems to be that Carter as President simply has trimmed his programs to fit financial realities -- something that Kennedy might well have to do if he were president.
So how can one best define this deep, bitter Democratic cleavage -- one that may lose the Democrats the White House this year?
Kennedy's sharp attacks on Carter and Mondale and his criticism of the President's domestic and foreign policy is pulling many liberals and "doves" to his side. But the most visible aspect in the split is anti-Kennedy in nature -- with politicians at all levels who have been run over by a Kennedy in the past leading the charge against the current Kennedy, together with a growing number of Democrats who are resentful that Kennedy is trying to take the presidency away from a Democratic incumbent.
The President keeps saying that the Kennedy challenge is "good," that it will strengthen his own candidacy against the Republican candidate. But, increasingly, toplevel Democrats, in and outside the administration, are conceding that the split is bad and, the longer the Carter-Kennedy battle goes on, getting worse. And they see the prospect of a badly divided party losing the presidency to a Republican next fall.