ALBANY, NY — February 16, 2020 — In 1972 I worked as an advance man for Maine Sen. Ed Muskie in the New Hampshire Democratic primary. He was the electable, moderate candidate, the consensus choice to take on Richard Nixon.
Among my tasks was to set up a rally outside the offices of the Manchester Union Leader run by William Loeb, the influential, right-wing Rupert Murdoch-like publisher and kingmaker.
The Union Leader had been stridently attacking Muskie’s wife, Jane. He was going to defend her and show his genuine feeling for her, a combination of political strategy and personal conviction. “People want a leader with red blood in his veins,” he said to me.
I got the flatbed truck in place, and a sound system, built a small crowd and escorted him to the scene and held the mic. He attacked Loeb and defended Jane. He choked up, slightly, calling her “That good woman.”
The next day’s Union Leader front page had a large cartoon of Muskie with tears streaming from his eyes, hysterically poking the button controlling nuclear weapons. Ever since, this has been known as “The Crying Speech.”
Muskie still won the primary but with less than 50 percent of the vote. Second-place finisher George McGovern declared victory and Muskie’s campaign dissolved.
The lesson of New Hampshire 1972 is simple: Don’t read too much into the order of finish but pay attention to the strategic message voters send. Which brings us to last week’s results. Two large conclusions seem reasonable. First, Democrats are primarily interested in a candidate who can beat Trump but don’t know who that is. Second, there are about 40 percent of the Democratic electorate in the “progressive” camp and about 40 percent in the “moderate” camp.
That in turn leads to predictions, even as the campaign morphs into something new on a daily basis.
First, Mike Bloomberg is coming, fast. It’s not just his money. He will argue that he’s the giant-killer everyone wants and can win when others can’t. Second, the progressive bloc is going to have an existential moment. Is beating Donald Trump more important than electing Bernie Sanders?
It remains possible that one candidate will catch on and assemble a majority of delegates going into the convention. This week’s guesses are Bloomberg or Amy Klobuchar, but don’t underestimate Bernie.
Assume on the other hand that Bernie leads the pack into the convention but with about 40 percent of the delegates. Will the other 60 percent coalesce around someone else? How will the Bernie-ites react? Will progressives still turn out in November?
The hand-wringing about the primary season and all the candidates is misplaced. There’s a perfectly sensible winnowing out process underway. What happened to Muskie could happen to any of the early leaders. But the underlying dynamics are emerging and they aren’t all favorable.
What’s different from 1972 is social media and the decline of opinion leaders like William Loeb. The anarchy and anger that gave the Republicans Trump could overwhelm the Democratic Party in 2020. It will come down to the willingness of progressives to settle for merely beating Trump, as opposed to rewriting American politics.
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Original publication by Times-Union on February 16, 2020.
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Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.