Is Bernie Sanders 'the next Eugene McCarthy'?

As he draws massive crowds in his bid to seize the Democratic presidential nomination from Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders makes for an easy comparison to McCarthy and his insurgent presidential run in 1968.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont speaks at a campaign rally in Portland, Maine, on Monday. Sanders is packing 'em in: 10,000 people in Madison, Wisconsin. More than 7,500 turned up for the Sanders event, prompting comparisons to insurgent Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968.

The Next Eugene McCarthy? The label given to upstart Democratic presidential candidates who challenge their party’s heavyweights. The question mark applies because few, if any, of these candidates actually get the nomination.

McCarthy mounted a left-wing, anti-establishment presidential bid in 1968 that still resonates within politics. In the 1968 cycle, the Minnesota Democratic senator effectively forced President Lyndon B. Johnson from the race after a strong New Hampshire primary showing. McCarthy, though, eventually lost the nomination to fellow Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey, the vice president.

Just as politics is about successfully defining your opponent, political journalism is all about defining politicians. And these days, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders makes for an easy comparison to McCarthy as he draws massive crowds in his bid to seize the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton. “Is Bernie Sanders the political reincarnation of Eugene McCarthy?” asked Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson. “I doubt it, but let's hope he makes the Democratic presidential race interesting.”

This pro-Democratic line of thinking contends Sanders’s challenge from the left ultimately will benefit Clinton’s general-election prospects. “Sanders has an appeal for younger, more liberal, more idealistic Democrats that Clinton presently lacks,” Robinson added. “If she competes for these voters – and learns to connect with them – she will have a much better chance of winning the White House.”

Not everyone is convinced. There are key differences between LBJ’s 1968 reelection bid and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run, Bloomberg View columnist Jonathan Bernstein wrote: “When Johnson dropped out, he was deeply unpopular with a large segment of his party. There is no evidence that Clinton is in a similar situation.” 

Sanders isn’t even the first Vermonter to get the McCarthy treatment. A former Green Mountain State governor, Howard Dean, directly made the comparison in 2004. “When I was back in my twenties, the Vietnam War was going on,” Dean recalled at an April 2003 rally in New Hampshire. “There was a lot of opposition to that war. And in this state, in 1968, there was a senator named Eugene McCarthy who drove an incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, out of the race... And that’s going to happen again.” Dean’s predictive powers were off: He flamed out in the Iowa caucuses and lost the Democratic nod to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. 

Another McCarthy-esque challenge never quite got off the ground. As the 2008 Democratic presidential race approached, Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold flirted with an anti-Iraq War platform run. “By issuing an early call for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, Sen. Russ Feingold could emerge as the Democrats’ anti-war candidate of 2008, in the tradition of Eugene McCarthy and Howard Dean,” Fox News reported in December 2005.

But Feingold stayed out of the White House race and lost his Senate seat in the 2010 Republican wave. He’s now attempting a comeback, seeking to knock off his vanquisher, GOP Sen. Ron Johnson. No mention of Eugene McCarthy yet, though.

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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