In 1968, I smelled the stink bombs that anti-war protesters tossed into the lobby of Humphrey’s convention headquarters. He forlornly watched from the window of his hotel suite as the Chicago police cracked down on the demonstrators with tear gas and clubs. Humphrey’s challenger from the left, Senator Eugene McCarthy, who had castigated Humphrey for the Johnson administration’s handling of Vietnam, didn’t get the nomination that year. But McCarthy failed to reconcile with his fellow Minnesotan and led his supporters back into the fold only after it was too late. Richard Nixon exploited the divisions in the party and the country and was elected by the thinnest of margins in November. His election led to an extension of the war Humphrey would have ended; during the next four years another 21,000 American soldiers were killed.
In 1980, the Democratic chasm opened again. I had been Jimmy Carter’s policy director during his 1976 campaign and went on to serve as his domestic policy adviser in the White House. A former Georgia governor running as a moderate in the Democratic primaries, Carter nevertheless had decidedly progressive accomplishments as president. I worked under Carter’s leadership to develop all the major ethics legislation still in place, requiring disclosure of assets and potential conflicts of interest for senior officials coming into office, restricting gifts while in office and curbing lobbying when leaving, and creating the office of special counsel to investigate wrongdoing by high officials, among many other measures. Carter encouraged affirmative action and directed more government contracts to minority companies. He increased the minimum wage by the largest amount in a decade, doubled the number of public jobs and expanded youth employment programs. He reformed and greatly expanded funding for food stamps and education with a new Department of Education, saved New York City and Chrysler from bankruptcy, and appointed more women and minorities to senior positions and judgeships than all his predecessors combined.
Carter showed what moderates can accomplish. But, throughout his four years in office, Carter never got full credit for this record.