Guest Opinion: California Dreamin’

Guest Opinion: California Dreamin’

hillary-clinton-bernie-sandersBernie Sanders is in the Golden State enjoying a little bit of California dreaming this week. He wins in California and then goes to the convention, convincing a supermajority of delegates to switch to him. Or so the dream goes.

Too bad reality likely has a different story in mind.

Sanders and I have both been around long enough to remember 1968, the last time California primary played such a pivotal role in the Democratic nomination process. A win that year actually held out the prospect of a truly contested Democratic convention. And it took place at a time, like now, when the country was deeply split over a protracted war and feelings of social and economic injustice.

The Chicago convention did not turn out well for the Democrats or the nation. The party blew apart and the nation got Richard Nixon.

As a boomer I need to be reminded from time to time that it’s not the sixties anymore (and where my keys are). But issues like peace and justice are of such enduring importance it’s worth picking up some lessons from the past. I recently saw Brian Cranston in “All the Way” and reread Theodore White’s monumental, Making of the President 1968, taking away three lessons from these look-backs.

The first is that it’s important for a party to have challenges from within to force reform of its own establishment. This year Sanders has played that role for the Democrats, but in 1968 it was Eugene McCarthy upending a sitting president over Vietnam. Eventually this pressure from the left caused Hubert Humphrey, the establishment choice to replace Lyndon Johnson, to break with him on the war. He may have won the election if he had it done it sooner, but by the end of September it was too late. In all of this, White emphasizes the importance of youth in providing the energy for McCarthy’s run.

The second is that it’s equally important for a party to stand on the right principles when there is internal conflict. In 1968 it was the party standing against the racist opposition of George Wallace to the Civil Rights Act, passage of which is the plot of “All the Way,” the Broadway play and HBO show. This stance helped Wallace lead die-hard segregationists into a third party movement and away from the Democrats. In this case it was the dissenting Dixiecrats who were wrong — opposing racism was the right thing to do then, and it’s the right thing for both parties to do now.

The final point is that victory requires a party to reconcile the demand for reform with the ability to accomplish something without sacrificing principle. This is the real challenge the Democrats face between now and the convention. It’s the role Bobby Kennedy had hoped to play after his win in California before he was cut down by an assassin while departing through the kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel. His final public words, “On to Chicago and let’s win there.”

White portrayed Kennedy as someone who recognized the potent force of the youth movement and understood the disaffection of minorities, but also respected the experience of the old guard. He had both factions in his campaign — the tried hands from his brother’s administration and the newer leaders who had joined him in the spring on the trail. White concludes had he lived, he might have “healed the Party” and won the election.

Some have cast Hillary Clinton in the establishment role of Humphrey in the 1968 universe, but who is supposed to be the Bobby Kennedy character?  The way I see it, this time Kennedy needs to be played as a composite figure. As Clinton tempered by the Sanders primary challenge.  The one who declared herself a true progressive but one who wants to get things done. The one who, with his help, can unify the party and reach out to disenchanted Republicans and independents.

There are plenty of differences between then and now. The divisive 1968 election took place two years after the Mama’s and the Papa’s release of their iconic California Dreamin’ single and two years before the first Earth Day. Although ecological awareness was on the rise, environmental issues were nowhere on the national agenda and hadn’t been a priority for the Kennedy or Johnson administrations. This was true even of Bobby Kennedy who made little use of the issue in appealing to youth, although his son, Bobby Kennedy, Jr., has more than made up for it with a career of environmental leadership (see for example his work, Crimes Against Nature).

This time all of the major candidates for president in both parties had to take positions on the environment, and the issue of climate change specifically. Clinton and Sanders both rolled out highly ambitious plans for future action to reduce carbon pollution and expand clean energy. And Sanders was very effective in taking this issue to college campuses and younger audiences as a way of spurring enthusiasm. Young people know better than anyone that this issue is about their future.

Unfortunately, all of the would-be GOP standard bearers this year seemed stuck in the past denying need to act on climate change. Now their presumptive nominee, Donald Trump, has promised to turn back the environmental clock by tearing up our international commitments, building the Keystone tar sands pipeline, and canceling Obama’s plan for cleaning up old power plants.

Clinton and Sanders both have admirable legislative records on the environment, though Clinton has a more varied history including work on air pollution issues as First Lady and laying the groundwork for international climate negotiations through her work with Brazil and China. Yet the Sanders challenge gets credit for helping to get Clinton to the correct place on issues such as the Keystone pipeline and restricting fossil fuel development on public lands.

But now is the time for believers in environmental protection to unite behind Clinton for the November election. Or risk reliving the sixties in more than a flashback.

Wesley Warren is a guest blogger for the NRDC Action Fund.  He previously worked as senior environmental official in the White House from 1994-2001 and before that as legislative staff on energy and environmental issues in the U.S. House of Representatives. A former Director of Policy Advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, he now does private consulting.