Friday, May 27, 2011

A Little Friday Counterfactual Fun

I did one item already on Hubert Humphrey, but I hope you won't mind a second one. Nelson W. Polsby did an edited volume of counterfactuals once, and his contribution was "What If Robert Kennedy Had Not Been Assassinated?" It's been a while since I read it, and it doesn't seem to be readily available through a bit of googling (or, alas, on my bookshelf),  but the basic story Nelson told was that Humphrey would have won the nomination; would have offered the VP slot to Kennedy; and Kennedy, being among other things thoroughly a politician, would have accepted. The Democratic Party thus unified, Humphrey/Kennedy go on to defeat Nixon, and all sorts of good things (including, perhaps most importantly, a relatively quick exit from Vietnam) ensue.

That's what I remember from the essay, and I think it's all quite likely. One of Humphrey's problems in 1968 was that he was trapped by the prospect of LBJ withdrawing support; with Kennedy on his side, not only would many antiwar Democrats have been a lot more favorably disposed towards him even without any other changes, but at least in my opinion he would have had a lot more leverage to ignore Johnson. As it was, Humphrey wound up very close in the popular vote but down 301-191 in the electoral college (with Wallace taking 46 electoral votes). A three-point swing in each state would have brought Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio, Alaska, and (just barely) Illinois to Humphrey for 74 additional EV and a 265-227 lead. California, which Nixon held by 3.08%, would have put Humphrey over the top without going to the House. There's no way to prove anything one way or another, of course, and usually VPs don't make any difference at all -- but in this particular counterfactual, I think it's at least plausible that Humphrey/Bobby does three-plus points better than Humphrey/Muskie.

Now, I don't remember what Nelson speculated down the road, if anything, other than as a long-time Humphrey supporter he certainly thought HHH would be a good president. Just for fun,'s easy to imagine the oil shock followed by the deep 1974-1975 recession giving a somewhat younger Ronald Reagan the presidency in 1976 over Vice President Bobby Kennedy, perhaps with a GOP Congress (no Watergate landslide in 1974, for one thing). After that...well, I guess it depends on what you really think of Reagan. It's easy to argue that a pre-Laffer, younger, Reagan serves a couple of successful terms and actually establishes the GOP as a majority party for a while. On the other hand, it's also possible to imagine Reagan having a miserable time with the same things that Jimmy Carter couldn't handle, and Democrats reviving in 1978 and 1980.

But wait! I cheated a bit there; I ignored the 1972 election. I'm stipulating that Humphrey is pretty good at the presidency, and if so (and given what else we know) it's likely that he wins a major landslide in 1972. Over who? Most likely, Ronald Reagan, then halfway through his second term in California, and the clear conservative champion. It's true that in this alternative history the nomination process hadn't been reformed in the same way, but it's very hard for me to see Rockefeller or someone from the liberal wing winning, and I'm not sure who was available to succeed Nixon as the person who was tolerable to both sides. Maybe Reagan sees the writing on the wall and waits until 1976, but I doubt it. I say he runs, gets the nomination, and is totally clobbered.

And you know what? A history in which Goldwater and Reagan get clobbered (plus Nixon, originally from the conservative wing, losing two close elections) might just be enough to shift things around considerably. How? I have no idea. Perhaps it's Howard Baker or someone like that who becomes president in 1976, and Republicans evolve into a moderate conservative party with Reaganites marginalized, and wind up with a long-term majority instead of the deadlock that actually happened after 1980. Perhaps a true three party system emerges, with a southern-based, Wallacite Conservative Party replacing the Southern Democrats. Maybe then Republicans wind up relatively isolationist and libertarian, while Democrats keep serious Cold Warriors in the fold. Who knows?

I'm enjoying the comments over on the other Humphrey post, and I can't wait to see what y'all say on this one.


  1. My favorite counterfactual is one where Ford beats Carter in 76 and runs into the same trouble with inflation, recession, trouble in the Middle East. Ted Kennedy gets the nomination in 1980 and wins a Reagan-like landslide, setting up 12 years of Democratic dominance. Instead of supply-side economics we get single payer health care.

    I think the trouble with either scenario is that the party system wasn't entirely symmetrical. The "Reagan Democrats" would have still been a thorn in the side of liberalism. Maybe economic success or an end to civil unrest would have been enough to keep them in the fold, but it still would have been difficult to keep the old New Deal Coalition intact.

  2. I think that the Polsby story is dependent on Kennedy being alive being enough to keep the convention sane. And I'm not sure that it is. I'm really not buying that RFK alone is worth 3 points; I think it really needs to be a sane, Dan-Rather-NOT-getting-punched, no Chicago 7 convention to get a bump that big. Plus, even if RFK is worth some votes, he likely pulls them from the same places big bro did. JFK lost Ohio and Alaska (albeit barely..1960 was essentially tied in dozens of states....a real nail-biter). You're right that those are the states that HHH had the clearest path to victory in, but I'm just not sure those states were the ones I'd expect the biggest RFK bumps in.

  3. Hard for this Kennedy Dem to accept the counterfactual (which I look forward to reading in full one day), and it's a double-mind bender to have a courageous antiwar candidate like RFK, who was questioning LBJ's war policy earlier than Gene McC, running with a man who had to accept the Johnson-inserted status quo plank on VN which Lyndon insisted upon. Would the counterfactual have a ticket running officially on Lyndon's pro-war plank or do they manage to override it somehow? And what about the reaction of the even more fervently antiwar McC voters -- would they have gone along with a man at the top tepidly kind of supporting, but maybe not fully, LBJ and his war, even with the much more acceptable RFK along for the ride?

    Hard to believe RFK would have accepted Hubert's offer absent some very firm commitments from him on getting out of Viet Nam, and hard to believe Kennedy wouldn't have insisted Hubert distance himself and the ticket more robustly from Lyndon on that issue during the campaign.

    I disagree essentially that RFK was just "thoroughly a politician" -- not by 1968, not in the special circumstances of that year and the war -- and so cannot easily imagine a Hubert/Bobby ticket.

    As for what might have been had RFK lived, there's a fair argument he would have won the nom over Hubert. Mayor Daley of course was key, maybe crucial -- which Bobby recognized. Daley, btw, was antiwar while being crustily conservative on other things, and the rest. But he was tired of Johnson's war, and thought by August 1968 that with Hubert at the top of the ticket, HHH would not only lose to Nixon but bring down many IL Dems with him. He wanted to back a winner, and didn't see a winner in Hubert. Somewhere I've read that Daley tried to contact Ted Kennedy to see if he would throw his hat in at the last minute -- not for VP but for P. That's how little he was enthusiastic about Humphrey.

    I've also read somewhere that the night of the CA primary, when it was announced RFK had won over McC, the Mayor phoned Bobby to announce (or confirm) his support. If true, that would have been huge towards Bobby's wrestling the nom away from Humphrey. And back then, delegates weren't as bound by rules committing them to a candidate as they would later be, so Bobby and Daley would have had plenty of room to maneuver away plenty of HHH delegates. And we know Bobby had plenty of experience doing just that, given his behind the scenes work on behalf of his brother during the 1960 primary season, as they worked quietly to stymie LBJ's run for the nomination.

    Admittedly, it's also a bit of a mind bender to imagine a Bobby Kennedy, so hated by LBJ, hated with a white-hot passion, actually getting the nomination and then winning the election on Lyndon Johnson's watch. I suspect Lyndon was capable of arranging any number of things to prevent it -- and probably wouldn't have lost any sleep getting his hands very dirty in the doing.

  4. If the 1968 election had been decided by the House of Representatives, it seems like things would have gotten messy.

    When the House votes on Presidential elections, each state gets one vote shared collectively by its respective delegation. Nixon would have won the vote in a majority of states under the 265-227-46 hypothetical, so if representatives voted with their states, (regardless of how Wallace states voted) Nixon would have won. On the other hand, if representatives voted with their parties, then Humphrey would have won.

  5. Jonathan's post and the above comments contain much more informed counterfactual analysis of the era than I can make. But I will note that in Arthur Schlesinger's diary/memoir, in an entry I believe from the mid 1990's, Schlesinger conceded his belief that RFK would not have won the 1968 nom had he lived. This is in direct contrast to Schlesinger's earlier (1978, Robert Kennedy and His Times) romantic/nostalgic vision of what "might have been" for RFK. And I also remember, very vaguely, that Schlesinger claimed his concession occurred in conversation with some other Democratic hottentot from the era (McGovern? Teddy Kennedy? It's been awhile...) who conceded the same. Anyway, Schlesinger was perhaps the biggest Kennedy booster of all time (of all 3 of the main brothers), so he if he didn't think RFK would've won, that's pretty much game over for me.

    That said, Jonathan's RFK as Veep scenario seems entirely plausible...

  6. Matt, I can't answer your Q on the convention sanity in the counterfactual context, except to note this fact: according to the colorful fellow who founded the Yippies, Abbie Hoffman, he was intrigued by and attracted to RFK (sort of in a fellow radical way as he saw him), and so by the end of May '68 had actually canceled plans for Yippie demonstrations in Chicago.

    No Yippies in Chicago, with RFK alive, would have therefore meant it would have been far more likely the convention would have proceeded much more smoothly and gotten mostly positive PR. Therefore, we can envision more relaxed Chicago security forces inside the hall who wouldn't have been so hyped up and paranoid as to rough up Dan Rather.

  7. Lodus, I'd be happy to consider any cite you have from Schlesinger's memoirs, but it's interesting, assuming for the moment the truth of your assertion, that a few years later in the new Foreward to the paperback reprint of Rbt Kennedy and his Times, Schlesinger doesn't say that, but only says, at worst for Bobby, that the road to the nomination for Bobby would have been "rocky" given the power of the Johnson admin and the establishment aligned in favor of Humphrey.

    But he also states: "The dynamism was behind Kennedy, and he might well have swept the convention. If nominated, he most probably would have beaten the Republican nominee Richard Nixon." (Schlesinger, RFK, paperback, p. xvi)

  8. Only a slight mention of reform? In the RFK as Veep and at least a less divided convention scenario, I'm left wondering what would have come of the McGovern-Fraser reforms in 1968. How much longer would the smoke-filled room nominations have lasted or were those reforms inevitable in 1968 with or without the chaos in Chicago? I need to go re-read Quiet Revolution.

  9. Brodie, here is the cite (from Schlesinger's "Journals, 1952-2000," Nov. 2, 1998 entry, pg. 833), which upon reinspection it looks like I misremembered. Schlesinger didn't concede an RFK loss; rather, McGovern did in conversation with Schlesinger. Obviously, that's much less impactful than if Schlesinger had said so, so thanks for pressing the point.

    Here's the full paragraph (apologies, Jonathan, for the length):

    "On Monday we inspected the [Roman] Baths of Caracalla, which is within walking distance of George's house. As we walked, we reminisced. George said that he doubted that RFK, if he had lived, would have won the nomination of 1968. The administration simply had too many delegates locked up for Hubert. Even in New York, without a winner-take-all rule, a large bloc would have been pledged for Humphrey."

    Actually, here's the rest of that paragraph, because it's too juicy and poignant to resist:

    "As for McCarthy, George recalled his 75th birthday luncheon where Bob Dole spoke and where Gene was accidentally lunching in the same restaurant. George asked Gene whether he would say a few words. As he walked away, he overheard Gene whispering to his luncheon companion, 'Do I really want to say a few words to celebrate the birthday of the man who destroyed American liberalism?'"

  10. Matt,

    Yes, that's what (IIRC) Nelson was talking about -- with a unified party, things don't get crazy. Of course, part of it is that with a unified party inside, even if there is crazy outside it's not seen as symbolic of Dem disarray.


    Yeah, again it's been a long time since I read the essay, but reform was a big part of it.

    My general sense -- and I don't Nelson agreed with me about this -- is that a system that empowered formal party organizations was unlikely to be stable in an era in which those organizations were not, in most states, all that important within the overall party. And I think there's no question but that there would have been a reform commission regardless. But I'd agree that reform could certainly have come out different in many could have been, for example, less centralized.

  11. Lodus, thx for tracking down that clarification. My thought about McG's view is he might not have been aware that Bobby was able to get Daley's backing when he won the CA primary (assuming, again, that report has substance). My other thought is that McG probably developed a mixed view of the Kennedys in that late 60s/70s period, as he might have felt let down by Teddy turning him down (twice?) when he went looking for a VP.

    But in the RFK literature generally, that I've read, not many Kennedy backers come flat out and say RFK would have waltzed to the nomination. Maybe author Teddy White suggested that, but most said as AS, that it would have been tough. Imo, it would have been tough also for the party to deny Bobby after all the primary battles he'd waged, in favor of an establishment insider who didn't compete for the public's vote.

    As for Gene McC -- typical sourpuss, even nasty, remark by a rather negative pol who managed to do his fair share to help destroy liberalism with his strange hand-sitting attitude in the months after RFK was killed and with his stingy, unhelpful failure to help fellow Minnesota Dem Humphrey with an early and sincere endorsement. I don't know how he reacted to Nixon being elected, but I do know a few yrs later he was apparently happy when Reagan was.

    And that Schlesinger volume -- all those yrs of party going instead of finishing the FDR biography did nevertheless yield some some juicy anecdotes and stories.

  12. I agree that Bobby's very presence on the ticket would alleviate all of the crazy that meant anything. The party would be mostly unified, so there wouldn't have been vicious floor fights or Dems denouncing each other from the rostrum. Things outside might've stayed nuts, but that all actually did very little to hurt the Dems in 1968; bringing this all back together, in Nixonland, Perlstein noted that, at absolute worst, most people were ambivalent about Daley's crackdown, and many supported it quite a bit.

    Jeff Greenfield recently put out a book of recent political counterfactuals, and "If RFK lived" was a big one. He based most of his suppositions on people's personalities rather than big factors (except in the last one, if Ford had won in '76), but it was still interesting.

    He laid out a clever scenario (and it might've just been because it's better drama) where RFK could win- basically, winning California gets Daley aboard (he'd been in contact with RFK's folks for awhile), and then RFK sets a trap for HHH, making him choose between civil rights and the establishment/LBJ forces. Then he gives him a graceful way to extricate himself from the situation, which HHH avails himself of.

    Like I said, clever. Realistic? I dunno, I'm of the opinion that double-bluff schemes like that don't work out very much in politics. But it was a POSSIBLE scenario.

  13. BTW, I love political counterfactuals. Semi-regular feature, JB? If we're good?

    One thing I find really interesting about an HHH/RFK Administration is what it would do to foreign policy generally. Nixon and Kissinger's "balance of powers" approach really was a sea change, and while Carter and Reagan took us away from that, it eventually became nearly the default of our foreign policy, through Reagan's second term, Bush I, Clinton and Obama (Bush II, of course, was an unmitigated disaster in foreign policy).

    Would HHH/RFK take a similarly "realist" approach? Hard to say. Both had cut their teeth as Cold Warriors, but by '68, neither had much use for Vietnam. Both also had some relationship with Russian leaders. But the reactionary elements, especially in their own party, might've pushed them to be more hawks (weren't Meaney and the unions pro-war?). Really hard to say how things would've been different there, I think.

  14. Colby beat me to mentioning Greenfield's book, but an important note about it is that it posits that that Sirhan attempts to assassinate RFK but instead just wings Steve Smith, and it's the public response to Kennedy's handling of the shooting that starts to shift public opinion amongst party elites toward Kennedy, not Humphrey. I recommend the book highly -- it's throughly researched, and at times very funny and insightful about recent(ish) politics.

  15. Yeah, the exact historic jumping off point is pretty important in questions like this- "What if RFK had lived?" is going to change based on HOW he lived.

    But yeah, the Greenfield book is good fun. This blog would probably like the last story best (What if Ford hadn't bungled the Poland question in 1976), as it displays how important structural factors are.

  16. Colby, in your analysis of the FP for either HHH or RFK, you don't give them enough credit for not being typical cold warriors prior to 1968. Recall VP Humphrey had sent a memo to LBJ in early 1965 arguing against US military escalation in VN -- suggesting he was in the withdrawal camp of JFK, Mike Mansfield and other liberal senators.

    RFK also was skeptical about the US military venture early on, making a speech on the floor of the senate calling into question Johnson's war making policy as opposed to a political settlement. Bobby was consistently skeptical of the US venture well before 1968, and would have spoken out even more (Mansfield, for instance, chose not to) had he not (accurately) suspected that his nemesis LBJ seemed to be reacting to Bobby's criticism with harsher US actions to spite Bobby and personalize foreign policy.

    By 1968 also, the antiwar sentiment was in the ascendancy in the land, and so old hawks like Geo Meany and other crusty conservatives from Big Labor would be increasingly isolated and on the defensive. Recall it was in early 1968 that even the old establishment Wise Men advising LBJ on VN suddenly switched and announced that continuing with current US policy would not work. This was several weeks after former pro-war newsman Walter Cronkite went on tv and said essentially the same thing, and that it was time to get out.

    RFK in other FP areas would have been bolder and more progressive minded than even HHH, governing largely as his brother had begun to do as of 1963 -- withdrawal from VN, détente with the Soviets, opening up a dialogue with Castro, working to end the Cold War, as well as making friends with the emerging 3d world govts who had thrown off colonial rule. CIA and DoD would have been further reformed under Bobby, and probably in such bold ways that inevitably there would have been some serious drama.

    Hoover at the FBI would have been booted out with a very bold Pres RFK who knew first hand about his malign influence on the country -- but maybe not under a less bold Pres HHH. Anti-poverty and jobs programs would have been important under either Humphrey or RFK in the WH. Both scandal-free administrations, too, with either as prez, in stark contrast to both LBJ and Nixon.

    Btw, thx for the Greenfield book rec -- I look forward to reading his take.

  17. "Colby, in your analysis of the FP for either HHH or RFK, you don't give them enough credit for not being typical cold warriors prior to 1968."

    Very possibly! I'm not really trying to assert what they'd do, just get a full feel for the forces that would act upon them, and I reckon that with more Republicans and southern Dems in Congress, as well as a public attitude that was actually much more complicated than "Walter Cronkite turned us against the war!", there'd be a lot of reactionary pressure. And while HHH and RFK were clearly becoming stridently progressive, they both had spotty records in standing up to the reactionaries.


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