2016 Democratic Convention: It's 1984 Again

2016 Democratic Convention: It's 1984 Again
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PHILADELPHIA – Here’s a new wrinkle in the 2016 presidential campaign: Who imagined the Democrats would bring back Red-baiting?

It wasn’t a surprise that the Democratic National Committee plotted privately to undermine Bernie Sanders’ chances of upending Hillary Clinton—Sanders and his supporters had leveled that allegation for months. What was surprising was how the Clinton campaign responded to revelations by Wikileaks whistle-blowers about how that coordination was carried out.

DNC officials privately trying to tar Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, as an “atheist”? Hillary Clinton’s aides don’t deny it—they just blame “the Russians” for leaking it. Infiltrate the Sanders campaign with moles loyal to Hillary? Let’s not dwell on that, either, say Clinton aides; let’s concentrate on Kremlin hacking. Secretly paying Clinton supporters to troll Sanders on social media? We’d rather talk about Vladimir Putin.

If you found this line of defense wanting, you weren’t alone: DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced from her job on the eve of the convention and booed off the podium at a Monday breakfast of her home state Florida delegation. But is Wasserman Schultz really to blame?

For the answer, let’s join the Democrats in their time machine. But instead of going all the way back to the “Red Scare” 1950s, let’s stop in the 1980s, at a Democratic convention in California where another party loyalist who chaired the DNC was also kicked to the curb as the convention opened. It was the fate of that party chieftain, Charles T. Manatt, that foreshadowed the current drama in Philadelphia.

In the early ’80s, the standing of the two major parties was the mirror image of today. Democrats had a stranglehold on the House of Representatives, as Republicans do today. It was Democrats who held a majority of governorships, the same way the GOP does now. But Democrats just didn’t have much success at winning the White House.

Republican Richard Nixon had prevailed handily in a three-way race in 1968 and won re-election in a 49-state landslide four years later against George McGovern. After a four-year hiatus in which Jimmy Carter occupied the Oval Office, Ronald Reagan came along and was in the process of pulling off the same exacta in 1980 and 1984. Going into the 1984 San Francisco convention, presumptive Democratic nominee Walter Mondale, who had been Carter’s vice president, wanted to shake things up.

Revered by organized labor and respected by party regulars, Mondale was the choice of the party establishment—the Hillary Clinton of his day. His main rival to emerge during the primary season was Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. Like Bernie Sanders, Hart had run nearly evenly in the primaries, but lagged behind the frontrunner in superdelegates. So Gary Hart wasn’t Mondale’s concern going into San Francisco, but President Reagan certainly was. The economy had roared back from the doldrums, the popular incumbent led handily in the polls, and Republican adman Hal Riney was in the process of creating an enduring hit, “Morning Again in America,” that summed up Reagan’s appeal in 60 seconds.

Believing they had to turn the status quo upside down to have any chance, Mondale and his team got bold. They chose a woman as Mondale’s running mate, tapped New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to give a convention keynote speech attacking Reagan’s persona directly—something prominent Democrats were reluctant to do—and staged a DNC shakeup on the eve of the convention.

Without warning, Manatt, the affable, moderate Californian who’d been instrumental in bringing the 1984 convention to his adopted home state, was out. Bert Lance, a Georgia crony of Jimmy Carter’s, was put in charge of the party, infuriating and perplexing the San Francisco delegates.

Manatt’s sin, if he had committed one, was the opposite of Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s—under Manatt, the DNC had been even-handed during the primary season. And dumping him on the eve of the convention seemed cruel. In San Francisco, Bert Lance became a lightning rod, as Wasserman Schultz did in Philadelphia. The idea behind tapping Lance, apparently, was to try and peel off Southern states from the Republicans, which was silly idea to begin with.

Responding to the ensuing firestorm, Mondale relented. Lance was jettisoned, Manatt was allowed to stay, but the compromise struck—installing one of Mondale’s men as DNC political director—created another concern among the San Francisco Democrats: The political director’s job was already held by the well-liked Ann F. Lewis.

In the end, none of this mattered. Reagan won his landslide, and four years later, his vice president rode the Gipper’s coattails to a “third Reagan term.” And it was that campaign, the 1988 race between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, that set the tone for the Clintons’ obsession with secrecy, and the self-defeating impulse to blame the Russian government for hacking into the Democrats’ communications.

After the 1984 debacle, Democrats tinkered with their presidential primary system to give the South more influence, drew the Republican opponent they wanted, united early behind Dukakis, and raised four times as much money as they ever had before.

For all that, their ticket lost in 1988—handily. It was the fifth time in the previous six elections Democrats lost to Republicans. But why? In the postmortem, two dueling narratives emerged.

The most obvious, expressed bluntly to me by Chuck Manatt himself, was that in allowing itself to be led and defined by Massachusetts liberals like Mike Dukakis, the national party had drifted too far to the left. “You lose five out of six, you gotta learn something,” he said. “Obviously, we have to have a more centrist message on national defense, on crime, on some of these ‘family values.’”

Not surprisingly, Massachusetts Democrats and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party saw things differently. They blamed the Republicans for running a nasty campaign—and Dukakis for not standing up to it. The election results, Sen. John Kerry said, was “a reflection of the tactical and strategic problems that Michael Dukakis' campaign had and not a rejection of the Democratic agenda.”

A third Boston-based pol, Paul G. Kirk Jr., who by then held Manatt’s old job as party chairman, also identified Dukakis' reluctance to lash back at Bush as a costly miscalculation. “He was left in a corner of the ring for a few rounds in this campaign,” Kirk said.

But these two theories were not really at odds with one another. The ambitious Democrat who figured this out was Bill Clinton, governor of Arkansas. Clinton believed the national party had indeed veered too far to the left on issues ranging from criminal justice to foreign policy. He also had an uncompromising attitude on how to answer criticism, which was forcefully, with all the requisite malice.

From the start of the 1992 campaign, Clinton’s personal life was grist for negative attacks. Under the advice of media consultant Frank Greer, the campaign developed a playbook on how to respond. First stonewall media inquiries into allegations of misconduct; second, portray them as partisan attacks; then, after a few days, dismiss them as old news.

It’s a playbook still being followed, often with the added hot sauce provided by “Ragin’ Cajun” James Carville, who preached that if your opponents slap you, hit ’em with a fist. If they punch you, knife them.

Sometimes, this pugnacity gets the better of the Clintons. It’s cute to blame the Russians for the Wikileaks revelations, although there’s no evidence for it. But Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is a left-wing guy with no fondness for Vladimir Putin. He’s sympathetic to Bernie Sanders. More to the point, asserting that a foreign power hacked the DNC files afforded Mrs. Clinton only the most temporary advantage.

A moron could make the connection implied by that excuse—it suggests that the Russians already have all of the missing 33,000 emails Hillary Clinton sent from her private server and that her lawyers deep-sixed on the grounds that they were purely “personal.” Donald Trump, who is proving every day that he is no moron, didn’t miss the point.

“China, Russia, one of our many, many ‘friends’ came in and hacked the hell out of us,” he told a raucous crowd at a Monday rally in Roanoke, Va. “I guarantee we'll find the 33,000 e-mails.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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