Vietnam wasn’t the only issue driving apart liberals and labor. The violent crime rate increased by 126 percent between 1960 and 1970. Deadly riots became a fixture of urban summers. By 1970, researchers estimated that a person living in a central city faced a higher risk of being murdered than a World War II soldier did of dying in combat. Even so, Attorney General Ramsey Clark claimed in 1967 that “the level of crime has risen a little bit, but there is no wave of crime.” When asked about figures showing crime rising at 20 percent a year, he said, “We do ourselves a great disservice with statistics.” Prominent Democrats branded calls for law and order “a code phrase for racism.”
Disillusioned Democrats looking for a new political home were not without options in 1968. The Republican nominee, Richard Nixon, stressed law and order. George Wallace, the former Democratic governor of Alabama running as an independent, combined his support for segregation with more reputable talk about fighting crime. Humphrey was aware of these threats to traditional Democrat support. In Norwood, Massachusetts, the police chief, a father of 10, one killed in Vietnam, told him, “Wallace thinks like I do.” Humphrey’s union friends said the same. Joe Beirne, chief of the Communications Workers of America, reported, “Half of my members are for Wallace,” and I. W. Abel said as many as a third of his steelworkers felt the same way.
Humphrey understood such concerns. As Mayor of Minneapolis in the 1940s, he had cleaned up the crime-ridden city, saying, “The gangsters of Chicago are out to take over the city and are on their way to doing so unless they are stopped. We are starting to see business move out of the city—and people are going, too, to the suburbs. This must be halted if Minneapolis is to go on as a city.” But addressing the concerns of the labor part of the coalition would have brought charges of “coded racism” from the liberal part. As a result, he was forced to concede this important issue to Nixon and Wallace.
The convention in Chicago in August was a historic disaster. Humphrey tried to unite the party with the “politics of joy.” It didn’t work. Anti-war activist Tom Hayden announced, “We are coming to Chicago to vomit on the ‘politics of joy.’” Activists set up camp in Grant Park and raised the flag ofthe Vietnamese communists, who, at that moment, were killing working class American boys. The Chicago police, drawn from the same working class as many of those conscripts, on the orders of old school Democratic city boss Mayor Richard J. Daley, went in to remove them. What followed was later described as a “police riot” as the cops clashed violently with activists—the liberal-labor clash became very real. Another of Humphrey’s old friends and protégés, South Dakota Senator George McGovern, muttered about “Gestapo tactics.” Humphrey disagreed. Afterwards, he said, “There are certain people in the United States who feel that all you have to do is riot and you can get your way. I have no time for that.”
Humphrey’s campaign recovered miraculously from the depths of Chicago, but it wasn’t enough. On Election Day, he won 42.7 percent of the vote to Nixon’s 43.4 percent. Many liberal voters stayed home. Many labor voters had gone for Wallace or even Nixon. It was as bitter a defeat as any presidential candidate has ever suffered. But Humphrey accepted the result. That night he told his supporters, “I have done my best. I have lost. Mr. Nixon has won. The democratic process has worked its will, so now let’s get on with the urgent task of uniting our country.” In his darkest hour, Humphrey provided an example for all defeated candidates.
After the 1968 defeat, liberals took over the Democratic Party. Following the Chicago debacle, the Democrats appointed a commission under McGovern to reform the nomination process. McGovern changed the system of primaries and increased female and minority representation. With these rules in place, McGovern was well situated when he announced his intention to run for president in January 1971. He ran on promises of a “universal basic income” funded by taxes on the rich and defense cuts. Although not as radical as generally perceived, he was surrounded by radicals. There was enough truth in the charge that he was the candidate of “Amnesty [for Vietnam draft dodgers], Abortion, and Acid” that it stuck.
Humphrey, back in the Senate since 1970, took a very different path. He tried to reach out to his old base in labor, many now “Democrats for Nixon.” He acknowledged their concerns about law and order in a speech titled, “Liberalism and Law and Order—Must There Be a Conflict?” saying that liberals “must let the hardhats, Mr. and Mrs. Middle America, know that they understand what is bugging them, that they too condemn crime and riots and violence and extreme turbulence, that they scorn extremists of the left as well as extremists of the right.”
His ambition undimmed, Humphrey decided to run again in 1972. He opposed McGovern’s welfare plan, saying, “I’ll be damned if I’m giving everybody in the country a thousand-dollar bill… People in this country want jobs, not handouts.” He pointed out that McGovern’s “tax the rich” policies would actually see single people who earned $8,000 a year pay more tax than a family of four with an income of $12,000 who, themselves, would see taxes rise by $409. He attacked McGovern’s proposed defense cuts. He opposed abortion saying, “I am not for it.”
Humphrey stood little chance at the convention. Under the McGovern Commission’s rules, the delegates were richer, better educated whites and minorities. Thirty-one percent of the delegates earned over $25,000 a year compared to just 5 percent of Americans overall. A disproportionate number had advanced degrees. There were no farmers in Iowa’s delegation, but New York’s contained nine delegates who were associated with gay rights groups, and South Dakota’s were “anointed” by two Native Americans. The Democratic Party left little room for that old blue collar, working class, patriotic vote.
Actress Shirley MacLaine cooed that it looked “like a couple of high schools, a grape boycott, a Black Panther rally, and four or five politicians who walked in the wrong door.” Humphrey, by contrast, noted that “many who were on the outside raising hell in 1968 were on the inside running things” and that “the Democratic National Convention once again displayed an unattractive image that did nothing to enhance [McGovern’s] chances for election.” However much the Miami Beach menagerie might have impressed Shirley MacLaine, come November it turned out that American voters shared Humphrey’s assessment. Nixon carried 49 states, won 61 percent of the vote, and had 521 Electoral College votes to McGovern’s 17.