Muskie for President?
WHEN WILLIAM LOEB, publisher of The Manchester, New Hampshire, Union Leader, spoke to the Harvard Republican Club last semester, he praised himself profusely for accomplishing in 1972 "the greatest public service" of his career--making Senator Edmund S. Muskie cry. In view of Loeb's other achievements, this may indeed be his greatest accomplishment. But it now appears quite possible that the would be king breaker from New Hampshire may turn out to be a king maker. And the king whom William Loeb may have unintentionally announced could very well turn out to be the man he attempted to destroy in 1972--Senator Edmund Muskie.
Muskie's name has been mentioned with increasing frequency recently, as a leaderless Democratic Party considers the possible nominees for 1976; a relatively obscure Congressman from a state with six electoral votes; a junior Senator from lexas whose extravagent political hashes are reminiscent of the still-unpopular Lyndon Johnson; a conservative Senator from the State of Bocing an anathema to liberal Democrats, who suffers from suspicion about the handling of his campaign fund in 1972; a former Senator from Oklahoma who ran for the Presidency three years ago because he couldn't get re-elected to the Senate; and an outgoing Governor from Georgia, a peanut farmer, whose major source of attention is derived from his distribution of cups of peanuts to delegates at the Democratic Mini-Convention in Kansas City.
It anything, such behavior has only increased the feeling among Democrats that a different figure is needed to represent the party in 1976. With increased public distrust of politicians, the nomination of an old-guard politican of the Hubert Humphrey variety would be politically risky. But so, too, would the nomination of a truly unknown candidate, like Rubin Askew. A McGovern liberal would again split the party, as would a Jackson conservative. So why not, Democrats ask, nominate a clean but experienced, pragmatic but popular, middle-of-the-road candidate? Why not nominate Edmund Muskie for President?
FEW PEOPLE HAVE BEEN able to come up with many good reasons why not. As political stratogist Richard Goodwin, the Democratic speechwriter who catapulted Muskie to prominence by creating the Senator's masterful 1970 election-eve fireside chat, said of his former employer's presidential chances this week at an Institute of Politics study group session. "The possibility looks very high on the surface. You haven't got many candidates, and those who are candidates have trouble attracting broad support." It would certainly seem Muskie could be the candidate who, if not the most popular, would at least be the most acceptable to a diverse and deadlocked Democratic Party And in a campaign clouded by scores of candidates, new primary election rules, a complicated new campaign financing system, and dozens of favorite sons with small pockets of local support. Muskie could be the one man able to stay out of the scathing primary battles that proved so problematic for all candidates in 1972. He might well also be able to curry favor with party bosses and the myriad of candidates appreciative of Muskie's refusal to compete in the primaries, and capture the nomination at a deadlocked, brokered convention.
MOREOVER, Muskie is well-known nationally and has the support and sympathy of many because of the dirty tricks conducted against his campaign in 1972. As his 1972 supporter and current political rival. Rep. Morris K. Udall, said in an interview. "I think the dirts tricks people in the Nixon campaign brought about the defeat of Ed Muskie. They feared Muskie. They knew he was the toughest candidate. They did everything they could to chop him up and cut him down. And I think given an ordinary situation, and absent the dirty tricks that were played. Muskie would have been the nominee."
In part because of this sympathy voters have confidence in Muskie. After Richard Nixon, people want a President they can trust and the long lanks. Lincolnesque Muskie ("Trust Muskie" was his slogan in '72) does his best to remind voters of "Honest Abe." Surely, Democrats predict, if the public has a choice in 1976 between a new Lincoln and a used Ford, voters will select the newer model; clearly. Democrats reason, a car that hugs the middle of the road will be more popular than the used Ford brought to us by the man whom no one would trust to sell a used car, Richard Nixon.
The polls support these visceral sentiments. According to a recent Gallup survey. Muskie was the strongest of any Democratic candidate running against Ford. In spite of (or perhaps because of) Muskie's reluctance to run, he almost beat Ford in a recent Gallup poll, losing by less than five percentage points. Within the Democratic Party, too, Muskie has received strong support, especially considering the number of candidates (31 in the latest Gallup poll) with which the non-candidate from Maine has had to compete. Meanwhile, Muskie has retained a low negative rating, proving more acceptable to both Democrats and Independents than Wallace, McGovern, or even Humphrey.
Of course, there are obstacles with which Muskie must contend. He still suffers from his 1972 image of indecisiveness and wishy-washiness, and extreme economic problems in 1976 would make it difficult to avoid stands on critical issues. As Goodwin frankly admitted. "Muskie's not a man of substance... It's like he sat in the Senate for ten years and the whole world went by him--except for water pollution. And that emptiness in Muskie finally came through [in the 72 campaign]."
Furthermore, although Muskie's crying incident is considered less disastrous in light of other actions by recent Presidents (besides, we can be reminded. Lincoln used to cry), another such blunder would be fatal, Still, as Goodwin pointed out, it's unlikely Muskie would commit the same mistakes the second time around. "He's probably learned something. He wouldn't cry this time. He could get by with some amphetamines in 1976 like Humphrey did."
Nor is Muskie's political base, Maine, any great source of support. Maine's last presidential nominee was the unsuccessful James G. Blaine in 1884, a man to tainted by railroad scandals that his opponents sang chants of "Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine. Continental Liar from the State of Maine!"
Perhaps because he received treatment similar to that accorded his predecessor from Maine, Muskie is not anxious to run. "Muskie's not a fighter," Goodwin said, and the 60-year-old-Senator must undoubtedly still sting from the bitter attacks made by publisher Loeb, the "plumbers" and others in 1972. Yet the fact that he might not actively seek the nomination does not mean that Muskie would refuse to run. As a Muskie staff member in Washington told The Crimson, "He is receptive to the Presidency in terms of a draft, [and] he would accept a draft." That Muskie does not seek the nomination may indeed be an asset in 1976, not only because of public distrust of politicians who lust after the Presidency, but also because faction-ridden Democrats could more easily settle on a nominee who has not alienated voters in presidential primary elections.
If the Democrats do go for Muskie in '76, uniting under the theme that Muskie was cheated out of the election in 1972, William Loeb's "great public service" of three years ago may very well turn out to be the greatest private service ever performed for Edmund Muskie. For despite Loeb's charge that the American people "don't want a man of that temperment," voters one year hence may decide to defy the king breaker and follow the adage that "As goes Maine, so goes the nation."