To Be Young Was Very Heaven…

Is Hillary Clinton-Bernie Sanders The New RFK-Eugene McCarthy?

Sanders is like 1968’s Gene McCarthy: a single-issue candidate who has the kids fired up. But he’s moving beyond that. Can Clinton respond?

02.27.16 5:01 AM ET

Hillary Clinton’s firewall is about to be tested. As the Democratic race moves to Nevada and South Carolina, the loyalty that she and her husband built with the black community over decades is being challenged.

Bernie Sanders had a strong finish in Iowa and a big win in New Hampshire, the fifth and fourth whitest states in the country, but he polls in the single digits against Clinton with minorities, who are more than half of the Democratic electorate in key states, a disparity in voting along racial lines that is central to Clinton’s ability to win the nomination.

“I do think her support in the African-American community is very strong and instinctive and emotional,” Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told the Daily Beast. “There’s too much history to think that can be casually dislodged.”

Sanders began as a protest candidate appealing to young people and intellectuals, but he has shown that he can win working-class whites and single women, constituencies where Clinton should have the edge. And by meeting with the Rev. Al Sharpton in New York the morning after New Hampshire, Sanders signaled he’s going to contest Clinton’s presumed primacy with African-Americans, though checking the Sharpton box could complicate his push for working-class whites.

The stark divide along racial lines in the Clinton versus Sanders contest is reminiscent of the 1968 battle between Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose anti-war campaign attracted thousands of “Get Clean for Gene” young people to New Hampshire, and New York Senator Robert Kennedy, who after entering the race late was able to bring together blacks and working-class Catholics in what would have been a dream coalition if an assassin’s bullet had not struck him down on the night of the California primary.

In the general election, too many disappointed Democrats stayed home, and Republican Richard Nixon won election on a law and order theme, but the memories of ’68 hold lessons relevant for today. “Like Bernie, [McCarthy] was a one-issue candidate, it was all about the Vietnam War,” says Norm Ornstein now with AEI, the conservative tank, who recalled, as a young man of draft age, hearing McCarthy speak on Capitol Hill. “He captured the imagination of young people, especially those who were 1-a or about to be. Our lives were on the line. If it weren’t literally for the luck of the draw and the lottery, I would have been in a very different position. You saw a level of activism then that was about the draft.”

Kennedy was against the war too, but he could also relate emotionally to black Americans. As attorney general, his Justice Department had led the way in prosecuting for civil rights. He was on his way to Indianapolis on April 4, 1968 when he learned that Martin Luther King, Jr had been assassinated.  Without hesitation he went into the heart of what was then considered the city’s ghetto to break the awful news to the heartbroken residents in a speech that lives on as the best of politics.

With Kennedy gone, the party nominated Vice President Humphrey, who had waited too long to break with LBJ over the war. A Democratic senator recalled to the Daily Beast that he didn’t care as a young man then that Humphrey had courageously championed civil rights at the 1948 Democratic Convention. It was the Vietnam War that mattered in 1968, not the past. The senator said he understands why young women today aren’t moved by Clinton’s long experience fighting for women’s rights.  Women are “crushing” young men today, he said. Women are the majority in law schools and medical schools, and they want to know what Clinton will do in the here and now on student loans, and LGBT rights, and they want to hear big, bold ideas, not small pragmatic ones.

This senator has endorsed Clinton, believes she will win, and thinks voters of color might react to Sanders’ hearkening back to his record of fighting against segregated housing as a student at the University of Chicago 50 years ago with the same lack of interest young women have given Clinton’s resume.

As if on cue, the Clinton campaign organized a call with New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who told reporters that Sanders, during his 26 years in Congress, has been “missing in action” on issues of particular interest to the black community, like gun violence and social justice.  He said, “Hillary Clinton has been at the dance since the very beginning of her career” while Sanders is “a new arrival at the dance” who has “no credibility for things he is now saying at the twilight of his career.”

The battle of the endorsements was well underway with Sanders getting the backing of singer Harry Belafonte, a long time civil rights activist, and Clinton winning the support of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, and civil rights icon John Lewis. Endorsements matter on the margins and however many establishment figures Clinton collects, they can’t compensate for the pressure Clinton must be feeling to adjust and make big changes to counter Sanders.

Greenberg remembers how the Kennedy coalition came together. He was a student at Harvard and working with the Kennedy campaign on targeting and scheduling based on a computer model he and other students had developed that analyzed voters in every county by income, religion and race, using the data to determine where Kennedy should go next to maximize his votes. His ability to win black votes and to bring people together was real, says Greenberg. “It’s what animated us.”

In ’68, it felt like everything was coming apart, Greenberg recalls. There was the war, civil rights, huge social and economic changes, and the sexual revolution as well. “You had to be at the table with big, bold ideas.” He argues that today is comparable with economic inequality and anxiety, fears about terrorism, and huge cultural and demographic changes. “This is also a period of big disruption,” he noted, or we wouldn’t be seeing such a populist outcry for Sanders and for Donald Trump.

By winning white working-class voters and making inroads with minority voters, Sanders is moving beyond an elite and generational candidate, and forcing Clinton to address reform in a much bolder way, says Greenberg, who was the Clintons’ pollster in their first bid for the White House in 1992.

Clinton says she’s a progressive who gets things done, and that she won’t make promises she can’t keep, a message while admirable is not inspirational. “This is not a practical election, this is a change election,” says Greenberg.  And so far it is Sanders who has capitalized on the hunger for change, while Clinton has relied on her long history of championing liberal causes to resonate with voters, many too young to appreciate what she fought for.

Sanders began the way Gene McCarthy did in ’68 with support that was educated and young, and with a focus on the economy, the issue that matters most to these voters. The coming weeks will tell us whether Clinton can revamp her message to meet the moment, and whether she can continue to win minority voters with the same spirit of hopefulness that Robert Kennedy’s too short candidacy symbolized. Otherwise, she risks that mantle being grabbed by Sanders.