August 9, 2017

1967. Republicans Consider Candidates for the Upcoming Election

Liberal Wing of the GOP Pushes Back
Republican nominee Richard Nixon stands on his motorcade car during a parade in Chicago on September 4, 1968 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

March 12, 1967

Both the Democratic and Republican National Committees held political pow wows in this national capital over the past week, serving notice to the party professionals that the 1968 presidential election is only some eighteen months away.

For the Republicans the sessions were less of a strategy nature than they were a fashion show of the GOP's candidate potential in the upcoming race for the White House. Michigan's muscular Governor George Romney was here in the role of the under-reluctant, middle-distance man carefully timing himself for the nomination sprint at the Republican National Convention. California's dimpled Governor Ronald Reagan flew into town as a publicly announced favorite son candidate from the Golden State—also disavowing any national ambition despite the fact that Reagan is on record as describing the Victorian governor's mansion in Sacramento as a fire trap.

Former GOP presidential candidate Barry Goldwater continued to ride hard on the conservative wing of the party and displayed that Republican cunning which some political professionals call the "GOP death wish." Goldwater's contribution to Republican unity was to allow as how he might vote for George Romney if Goldwater became convinced that the Michigan governor had "rejoined the Grand Old Party."

Also making the GOP scene were some impressive dark horse possibilities for the Republican ticket, the most outstanding being the freshman senator from Illinois, Charles Percy, whose first two and a half months in the US Senate has attracted more attention from the national news media than most members of Congress get in ten years of legislating.

However, it was an ironic fact that the man with the best chance of getting the nod to head the Republican ticket in 1968 is the man who wasn't there. Former vice president Richard Nixon was overseas on business for his New York international law firm—at the same time, incidentally, building his own political image as a foreign affairs expert, which coincidentally is the area where Governor Romney and other GOP hopefuls are considered the weakest.

Thus Washington political pros are now assessing the Republican presidential picture this way. Romney's early move to make himself the GOP choice is a product of the Republican liberal frustration and shock at the way the Goldwater conservatives and Southern delegates took over the San Francisco convention. The GOP moderates and liberals had neither organization nor leadership. Romney and his backers, which included former Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton and New York's Nelson Rockefeller, decided this would not happen again.

Hence Romney's early candidacy. Too early, say most of Washington's press. The Michigan Republican, they contend, has already shown too much early-foot, and by making his move so far in advance of the convention, the governor has made himself a target at which his political enemies both in and out of the Republican Party can snipe at their leisure. Romney's early candidacy creates its own pressures. He is under compulsion to express himself on practically every current issue, a built-in trap for a politician intent on not picking his teeth with the point of his boot.

However, the political professionals in this town are not writing off the Romney campaign. After all, by sticking his political neck out, the Michigan governor already has achieved his first objective—giving the GOP liberals a rallying point. Secondly, his tremendous off-year election last November forces even the GOP conservatives to admit that the vigorous Boy Scout image of the former Detroit industrialist has a lot of political sex appeal. The Romney backers are also now trying to round up the best campaign brains available in the party, notably former New York congressman and Republican National Committee Chairman Len Hall, who has moved into the Romney-for-President headquarters here in Washington.

And thirdly, the Michigan governor will not have to "go for broke." His campaign already is well-financed by people like Winthrop and Nelson Rockefeller, the Scrantons, and others who fear for the future of the GOP if the right-wing conservatives again get hold of the party's reins. Another factor which cannot be ignored is Romney's Mormonism, which is both an asset and a drawback. Many Mormons regard the governor's presidential ambitions in the same light which American Catholics viewed the candidacy of John F. Kennedy. George Romney's religion, they insist, should have absolutely nothing to do with his politics. They dismiss as nonpolitical dogma the fact that Joseph Smith and the founders of the Mormon faith regarded Negroes as bearing the racial mark of Satan and thus unqualified for leadership in the Mormon tabernacles.

However, many of the church leaders are more concerned that the Salt Lake City church might become over-identified with right-wing extremism, notably the connection of former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson with the John Birch Society. Benson, who is an elder of the church, made such ultraconservative political declarations and criticisms since he left that Eisenhower Administration that it was widely reported he was sent into a kind of exile—assigned to handle Mormon affairs in Europe, where he has spent most of the past few years. Nevertheless, Elder Benson's son, Reed Benson, is one of the most outspoken and persuasive members of the John Birch Society—so able that Robert Welch assigned the younger Benson to open the Society's Washington headquarters which he still heads.

As a result, many Mormons see George Romney, the liberal, as a way of balancing the political books of the church against the Benson conservatism. And as a matter of human nature, they would like to see the Michigan governor become the first Mormon president of the United States, proving as did the late President Kennedy the freedom of religion in the country.

Still, the political professionals in this capital make Richard Nixon the winter-book favorite to get the Republican nomination, despite the fact that he's a two-time loser on his last pair of outings. He lost the White House by a hair to John F. Kennedy, but more humiliating was his defeat in the contest for the California governorship, an event that was a factor in changing Nixon's residence from the West Coast to New York City.

Nixon is the Grand Old Party's long-distance runner. Since the Goldwater convention which badly split the GOP, and since the Johnson landslide of 1964 which almost buried the party, Richard Nixon has been stumping the country, traveling to the most remote places where the Republican cause needed help. Some say that the election defeats which bloodied Nixon's head were probably the best thing that ever happened to him. Certainly the former vice president has emerged with more maturity and style than he had before. Nixon's traumatic experiences also seem to have given him a greater insight about himself—a sense of humor and ability to laugh at himself, which he never had before. In stumping the country over the past two and a half years, Nixon is picking up political "due bills"—gaining delegate support which he can cash in at the GOP political convention. It's the same between-years tactic that enabled Barry Goldwater to go to San Francisco with the convention virtually in his pocket.

And most important at this stage of the game, the Washington politicos point out that Nixon is emerging as the "compromise candidate." His other assets are his deep experience in government both as a congressman and as Dwight Eisenhower's vice president. And the nation still has not forgotten Nixon's skillful bearding of Nikita Khrushchev in the famous "kitchen debate" in Moscow, which makes him the Republican Party's foremost expert on foreign affairs.

However, the makers of the mythical "winter book" of presidential candidates admit that it's too early for serious speculation about personalities. Some of the so-called experts will take bets that Lyndon Johnson will not run again, which is a little like betting that the sun won't rise in the morning.

But a lot of things can happen to both men and issues between now and the national party conventions. And don't forget the dark horses, they say. Keep an eye on Ronald Reagan and Chuck Percy, and yes, even on the man in New York called Nelson Rockefeller.

Now, to get down to the Democrats, who also have been holding strategy sessions here in Washington.

After Lyndon Johnson's record-breaking victory in 1964, the Administration's party complacently looked forward to November's off-year voting with confidence. Certainly, the party in power always suffers some losses in these congressional campaigns, but the Johnson tide could not be reversed by the Republicans in just two years, yawned Democratic soothsayers—thus proving once again that there are no invulnerable political experts in this town.

When the voting was over last year, the president had lost his working majority that launched the Great Society program, and now he must buck the old Southern Democratic and Republican conservative coalition which has revived itself with almost a vengeance.

The Congressional Quarterly's authoritative assessment of the 1968 election prospects says that the Republicans have the opportunity to make substantial gains in the Senate contests, and if the GOP can pick up even a half-dozen seats, then the Republicans will have a chance to gain control of the Senate in 1970.

Assuming that the Vietnam War will still be the major concern of the American people when they vote in 1968, the Quarterly says that the Democratic senators who now appear to be in the most danger of losing their seats is the coterie of so-called "doves"—those Democratic liberals who have been most outspoken in their criticism of the president's policies for Southeast Asia. Up for reelection will be the leader of the Senate doves, William Fulbright of Arkansas—also Frank Church of Idaho, Joe Clark of Pennsylvania, George McGovern of South Dakota, Wayne Morse of Oregon, Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, and Alaska's Democratic Senator Ernest Gruening.

Presumably, the Republicans will campaign for a settlement in Vietnam, possibly in the pattern of General Eisenhower's handling of the Korean War issue. But the paradoxical irony of the situation as it is now shaping up is that Republican success in Congress in the upcoming elections will depend on defeating that bloc of Democrats who also made an issue out of settling the Vietnam crisis. It doesn't make much sense, but that's the way Washington politics often work out.

The latest Gallup poll published today says that the Vietnam War already has extracted a heavy toll in Lyndon Johnson's political strength and has been the chief factor in his popularity decline over the past year. The Gallup pollsters say that approval of the president's handling of the Vietnam situation is at an all time low, and that his general popularity has followed a downward trend.

The Washington Post today made its own survey of senatorial candidates who will be campaigning for office a year and a half from now. It reports that most Democratic incumbents are trying to put some political distance between themselves and the White House, and that with the polls showing Mr. Johnson's personal popularity on the wane, the Democratic candidates in the Senate fear that too close an identification with the Administration might cost them their seats.

The Post survey reports another Washington political paradox. The same senators who want to keep their coattails clear of any White House taint also say that Mr. Johnson will be the party candidate in 1968; that they'll campaign with and for him. Except for a few, these Senate Democrats emphatically rejected the suggestion that the Democratic convention switch to New York's Democratic Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968.

When questioned about the political dilemmas which constantly plague them, Administration leaders like to quote Will Rogers, who once was asked which party he subscribed to on the national scene.

"I don't belong to no organized party," the Oklahoma humorist replied, adding, "I'm a Democrat."

As this week in Washington ended, the Democrats appeared to be split more ways from heaven to breakfast than the Republicans could ever be. However, the Administration party leaders seemed less personally concerned, possibly because they're more used to the condition.

At a closed White House meeting with the Democratic National Committee last Thursday, the president let it be known that, come drought or high water, Lyndon Johnson is still in the driver's seat and head man of the Democratic Party.

Without mentioning any of the Democratic doves on Capitol Hill—and especially avoiding any mention of Bobby Kennedy—Mr. Johnson warned against "buying peace in Vietnam . . . in a campaign lust for political popularity."

Then the president laid it out on the line:

"If I've learned anything in the thirty-five years that I've lived in this town," Mr. Johnson is quoted as saying, "it is that you cannot have a dozen presidents . . . and twenty-five Secretaries of State, and a half-dozen Defense Secretaries . . . all of them dreaming dreams."

Here in Washington, this the stuff of which politics is made.

This is Bill Downs from Washington.