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It's 1972 Again in Presidential Politics

By Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES -- If you liked the Revolution of 1972, when the Democratic Party destroyed itself, you will love next year, when both parties seem determined to destroy themselves.

Thirty-nine years ago, in 1968, the Democratic Party in convention created a "Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection" to write new rules for the selection of the party's 1972 nominee for president. Democrats called it "The McGovern Commission," after its first chairman, Sen. George McGovern of South Dakota.

The 28 Democrats on the commission had a grand time revolutionizing American politics and making McGovern their nominee. That may have been inevitable because McGovern was the only candidate who really understood how the rules worked. The new political system was designed to eliminate party "bosses," the old men who looked for candidates who could win elections. The younger reformers wanted nominees to reflect the party's ideological base.

The McGovern Commission, appointed by a very liberal national chairman, Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma, set out to destroy the influence of state party leaders and elected officials, the men (mostly) who had engineered the 1968 nomination of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had not run in a single primary election.

The 28 commission members were determined to fashion a system of primary elections to produce state delegations with quotas for women, minorities and young people. It worked. There were 16 Democratic primaries in 1968 and 28 primaries in 1972; McGovern won most of the '72 primaries, and won most of the delegates in other states that selected delegates by party caucuses.

So, the signal moment of the 1972 Democratic National Convention was the replacement of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley as chairman of the Illinois delegation with a charismatic young civil rights leader named Jesse Jackson. Jackson, wearing a dashiki rather than a suit, celebrated the new Democratic system by periodically pumping the Illinois standard in the air and shouting, "Freedom now!"

Three months later, in November 1972, President Richard Nixon, who had been narrowly elected in 1968 over Humphrey, won more than 60 percent of the vote and carried 49 states. McGovern won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, a total of 17 electoral votes. There are some who argue that election marked the birth of Red State-Blue State politics, that the effect of the Revolution of 1972 was that the Democrats became a party of intellectuals and minorities, while the Republicans swept up shocked working-class voters around the country.

Now, both parties in about half the states are playing at a new revolution, scheduling more than 20 primaries on one day, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008. Those states include most of the biggies, beginning with California, New York, Florida and New Jersey. They think, as articulated by governors Arnold Schwarzenegger in California and Eliot Spitzer in New York, that the early primaries will give their states the voice they deserve in the selection of national candidates in both parties.

In plainer words, governors of big states, both Democrats and Republicans, are sick and tired of the publicity and pandering of candidates looking to win the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

In fact, what Super-Duper Tuesday in 2008 is likely to produce is a political system dominated by big media consultants -- and big money. As things stand now, more than 60 percent of the delegates in both parties will be selected in more than 20 states on the same day nine long months before the November 2008 election. The only way to do that much primary campaigning this coming autumn and winter is to buy more and more television time to show more and more (and probably nastier and nastier) television commercials.

This revolution, and that's what it is, will almost certainly change American politics for decades until the next uprising. Conventional hand-shaking, question-asking campaigning will finally become a thing of the past, replaced by what is, in effect, a national primary. Yes, the Internet and other new technologies will play a well-publicized role, but television is still where you find most of the voters most of the time.

Commercials will be the name of the game. The new "bosses" will not be mayors of Chicago or anyplace else. The power will be unseen, in focus groups to find out what party members want to hear, and in editing rooms where the consultants and their staffs will set the national agenda -- and pocket the cash. Newspaper reporters, broadcast journalists and bloggers, too, will cover commercials rather than candidates.

In the old days, good or bad, presidential campaigns began on Labor Day in election years. Now they will begin next Feb. 6. By Election Day, Nov. 4, voters will be more bored and cynical than ever before. That is the predictable result of the political revolution of 2008.

Copyright 2007 Universal Press Syndicate


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