The Significance Of Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 Presidential Run
Eugene McCarthy served the Congress as a representative of the state of Minnesota, a member of the House of Representatives, and in the Senate as the Senator of Minnesota from 1959 to 1971. But the long-serving Congressman is popularly remembered for his bid to vie for the 1968 Democratic Party nomination, challenging President Lyndon Johnson in his re-election bid. McCarthy was the first candidate to openly express his intention to challenge President Johnson.
McCarthy’s campaign platform was the Vietnam War and his opinions on it greatly differed from those of President Johnson. Though he was initially not very popular, he was able to garner an unexpected number of votes in the New Hampshire primary. This challenge and the strong polling that he received for the Wisconsin primary led to President Johnson’s decision to withdrawal from the race. This action attracted Robert Kennedy into the political contest.
In spite of all the dynamics surrounding McCarthy’s campaign, one thing stands out as the most significant ‘idea’ or ‘issue’, and that was his strong stance against the Vietnam War. His run had great significance on the campaign against the war before he became a candidate seeking the presidency. Notably, McCarthy was recruited to challenge the incumbent by the Dump Johnson Movement’s leader, Allard Lowenstein, who held strong anti-Vietnam War sentiments.
Supposedly, McCarthy was recruited to oppose the incumbent after George McGovern and Robert Kennedy refused to take up the role. Interestingly, both of them joined the race later on, perhaps after witnessing how well McCarthy had fared against the President, who decided to bow out of the race. These anti-war sentiments could be traced back to Senator Wayne Morse from Oregon, who voted against the 1964 resolution known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Senator Morse’s speeches were the initial spark that would later ignite McCarthy into action.
After the declaration of his candidacy in 1967, the news media and political analysts quickly dismissed McCarthy. As a result, he was given little to no room to make an impact in the primaries against the incumbent. However, following the Tet Offensive of 1968, which led to the disillusionment of most democrats on matters relating to the Vietnam War, McCarthy began to shine as a rising star in the race. His major campaign platform, which was anti-Vietnam War, finally became relevant and Americans started paying attention to his words. As such, his ratings on the opinion polls rose significantly.
McCarthy later reached a record of 42% against President Johnson’s 49% of the popular vote in New Hampshire and got more delegates for the nomination. These small, but significant wins against the incumbent revealed the deep-seated divisions that were present among the democrats on the Vietnam War. In essence, McCarthy’s run had more significance for the war than it had for his bid to get to the presidency. Indeed he later lost the bid, but his campaign is widely remembered for the role it played as an opinion changer on the Vietnam War.