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The Politics Before Us

The following is based on the transcript of an extemporaneous speech given by Tom Wicker to a meeting sponsored by the New Democratic Coalition in New York on January 12.

I was asked to talk today about the results of the 1970 elections and where they may have left us. I’m going to pass over the numbers game that we’ve played in Washington since those elections. I’m going to pass over the question of whether or not there is an ideological majority of one kind or another in the Senate. I’m going to get right down to the literal fact and say that it seems to me that the only thing you can say about the 1970 elections is that the Democrats picked up nine seats in the House and the Republicans one and a half senators. If you wonder how there can be a half-senator, you haven’t met some of those fellows.

Getting beyond the numbers game to some results of the 1970 elections that may mean something, I would say first that there was no further swing to the Republicans in the South. After at least a decade and a half of a steady Republican trend in the South, the Republicans did not make any further gains.

In fact, they lost two governorships they had held, and two more they had hoped very much to win. They won only one seat in Congress and that was from the valley of Virginia. So I would suggest that Nixon may be in a good deal more trouble in 1972 in achieving even as many electoral votes in the South as he did in ‘68, particularly since Governor Wallace now appears to be ready to run entirely as a Southern candidate, trying to consolidate the Southern vote as best he can. And after his four years in office, it will not be as easy for Southern voters to delude themselves that somehow the election of Richard Nixon will turn back the tide of the civil rights movement.

There are some other consequences. There is no real evidence, it seems to me, of the kind of conservative trend that had been predicted. I’m not talking necessarily about conservatism as against the old New Deal or conservatism in economics or anything of that sort. I have in mind a sort of law-and-order conservatism, a crackdown on the dissidents. I saw no evidence of any such trend in the 1970 elections, despite the assiduous efforts of the Administration and most of the press to convince us that there was such a trend.

Another thing I didn’t see in the 1970 elections was a vast, overwhelming demand for the Democratic party. People like to cite all the governorships the party won. They should look at the governorship in Nebraska, for instance, in which the man who was elected there was about as far to the right, particularly in economic matters, as you could get, even though he ran in the Democratic party. In fact, he displaced a relatively moderate, progressive Republican governor who committed the sin of raising taxes in order to try to provide services for the people. So I saw no overwhelming trend to the Democrats, particularly since so many of their victories were won out of a rather sterile dependence on the economic dislocations that the Democratic party itself had managed to produce in the 1960s.

Another result of those elections is that there seemed to me to be no vast demand for the Republican party either. As I’ve said, they lost nine seats in the House, despite the fact that they hadn’t carried the House in ‘68, which meant that there was no reservoir of weak Republican seats there, ready to be taken back by the Democrats. They failed to gain much in the Senate despite the fact that in the two previous elections for this class of senators—1958 and 1964—there had been a Democratic landslide.

And finally, it seemed to me that there was no evidence that the leadership of the Republican party, the President and the Vice President—in their strategy, their personal performances, or their actual appearances in the various states—had any overwhelming effect on the electorate, except negative.

I saw no vast demand for either party in those elections and therefore the only real conclusion that I’d venture about 1970 is that President Nixon did not improve himself. He did not, as the quarterbacks say, get good field position for 1972 or for his party, except in one sense. Politics being what they are, I would suggest that his willingness to expose himself to every lost cause from Ralph Smith to George Murphy and to work as hard as he could for the party probably cemented his intraparty leadership. At the same time, the failure of Reagan to reach the majority predicted for him by such experts as Evans and Novak seems to me to have lessened the possibility of a right-wing challenge to Nixon. Now a recent column by Kevin Phillips has raised the possibility of a left-wing challenge to Nixon, if indeed there are those who can regard a challenge from Governor Rockefeller as a left-wing challenge. But I would think that President Nixon’s party leadership and hold on the party probably are now a little bit stronger than one might have expected.

Another more obvious conclusion is that Senator Muskie is now the front runner for the Democratic party, and the polls seem to confirm this. But I think that that’s a mixed benefit. I can recall when Governor Romney was the front runner at just about this same time in 1967. I wouldn’t want to compare the two but, generally speaking, I would say that a front runner at this stage does have a number of problems to contend with.

He’s everyone’s target in both parties. Every time that some issue arises he’s expected to comment on it. And in this case, there’s another doubly difficult problem for Senator Muskie: he is in danger of becoming identified suddenly and right away as the candidate of the LBJ-Mayor Daley-John Connally wing of the Democratic party. And I don’t think there’s any doubt at the moment that this wing of the party, with certain reservations, is indeed in favor of Muskie because he appears to be a man who might reconcile it with other wings of the party. Finally, I think Muskie’s position as front runner is endangered by the fact that he still must face what I expect to be vigorous opposition in the Democratic primaries in 1972.

A final conclusion that I would draw from the election, after these two, is that American politics are still unsettled and not moving in any clear direction. I see no evidence, for example, that there’s some huge rightwing swing in the Atlantic community, heralded by the election of Edward Heath, and that Nixon and the Republicans are simply following suit along that line.

Nor is there evidence of a great left-wing swing. I think it is useful here to compare the Presidential elections of 1960 and 1968. The election of 1964 was exceptional because it followed so closely after the death of President Kennedy. In retrospect there was never any doubt that the Democratic nominee was going to be elected to complete that period as best people thought it could be. People didn’t want three Presidents in the space of a little over a year. But if you look at the elections of 1960 and 1968, they were both, as we say in the South, as tight as Dick’s hatband: very close elections in which very few votes either way could have changed the outcome. In fact, if you look at all the Presidential elections, excluding 1964, since 1948, and if you add up all the votes cast for Republicans and all the votes cast for Democrats they come to just about the same numerical total.

During this entire period, there hasn’t been a clear trend in American politics, except toward the ultimate bankruptcy of the New Deal. Certainly there has not been a clear ideological trend and I don’t think there is one now, nor that the 1970 elections suggested anything of the kind.

I would think then that this means, as we look ahead to 1972 and beyond, that we are in for a continuation of the rather turbulent and embittered politics that we have become accustomed to in recent years, a politics with a very strident base of moral enthusiasm, of ideological sentiment, of zeal on the part of partisans of both sides—a politics in sharp contrast to that of only ten or fifteen years ago, which was much more nearly compromise, coalition politics.

A more turbulent and embittered politics will mean that people like the New Democratic Coalition in New York and the ethnic groups and the blacks and the young are going to demand, or try to find, forms to make ends mean something. They will demand participation in politics, that their views be taken into account. So I think turbulence and a demand for participation can be expected to continue for many years and are not something peculiar to a particular generation in America.

I also suggest that we’ve probably entered an era of one-term Presidencies. This has nothing particularly to do with Mr. Nixon. President Johnson, I suggest, is the first victim of that circumstance.

Until now in the twentieth century we have, by and large, expected that our Presidents would win two terms. The only Presidents who have sought re-election in the twentieth century and failed to win it were Taft, who went down in the Bull Moose split, and Hoover, who went down in the Depression. Just this week in a column advocating a six-year Presidency, William S. White stated the assumption that, generally speaking, American Presidents win two terms. I think that that assumption now ought to be changed. The assumption now ought to be, in my judgment, that a President seeking re-election probably is going to be in deep trouble. That doesn’t mean that he can’t get elected—the opposition party might help elect him, as could happen in ‘72. But he’s going to be in deep trouble, rather than having an easy time.

The most obvious reason for this is that communications are beginning to work for the outs too, as we saw on election eve last year, when the President’s speech was seen by Democratic politicians as helpful. While the White House is a “bully pulpit,” as Theodore Roosevelt said, when the man in the White House goes on television, he’s not necessarily a bully preacher.

Communications can work for the outs and after our twenty-odd years of experience with television, I am beginning to believe that television burns out politicians about the same way it does comedians. (This seems a possible explanation for the decline and fall of Spiro T. Agnew.)

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