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Revival Politics

Brass Tacks

By Thomas Geoghegan

THERE WAS not much talk of good fellowship when the Harvard Young Dems convened last month for general elections. The YD's seemed ready to fold, and the members were looking for scapegoats. As an influence on student politics the club had clearly failed. But several candidates thought it still had a role to play in adult political campaigns throughout Massachusetts.

"It's very obvious the YD's have done next to nothing," one speaker said bitterly. "Just look at our membership--last year it was seven hundred, this year it's two hundred fifty." The exec board had not met since November, and the YD's had gone all semester without a speakers program. The incumbent president promised reforms, made a half-hearted attempt at re-election, and finally withdrew, saying the YD's weren't worth saving.

Some members must have agreed with him, for only sixty of the two hundred fifty dues-payers showed up to elect a new slate and to find some reasons to keep going. As it turned out, there was only one candidate running for office. With usual Harvard finesse in parliamentary procedure ("We're voting on the amendment to the amendment . . . is there anyone who doesn't understand?"), it took just a half hour to elect Charles Schumer unanimously. Running without opposition, he was able to turn his campaign speech into an inaugural address.

"There's not been one success for the YD's all year," he said. "No John Lindsay, for example, as the Young Republicans had last spring. There is some energy here and I hope in the next month or two there will be a radical change in what people are doing."

Mentioning "radical change" was ironic, for SDS is Young Dems' most feared rival. Not really hated, but the existence of SDS gives some YD's their sense of mission. The sixty voters who tried to breathe life into the corpse did so because "Harvard needs a moderate voice on campus."

NEW POLITICS is the second, more important premise upon which the YD's intend to base their comeback this semester. New Politics would mean intruding into the Boston area, taking stands on local issues, and "going all out for left-liberal local candidates." Schumer himself is not an ideologue and he sees the YD's more as an off-campus missionary than a university debating society (which it never has been anyway). This means recruiting fifteen or twenty people to work on a committee geared for a specific project--such as the Cambridge housing drive or the Cambridge Council elections.

"Take Dorchester," he pointed out. "May 20 there's going to be a primary there for a vacant seat in the legislature. There's a black candidate who has a good chance of defeating some conservative opponents, and Dorchester is 30 per cent black. But these people have to be told."

New Politics in off-year 1969 is a very dull business though, and Harvard students are notoriously indifferent to Cambridge politics. Being out-of-towners, they are usually groping after one or two years just for a niche at Harvard. "It's not easy to ring doorbells for someone nobody has ever heard of before," Schumer admitted. "But you know how SDS keeps going? They get a core of 25 people to work full time on some project. I've never seen a group with so much Protestant ethic." Club officers hope, perhaps mistakenly, that McCarthyism without McCarthy can whip up campus enthusiasm for Council elections and busy-work democracy.

Schumer's pragmatism contrasts with the feelings of many who elected him. These people see in the club an ideological bastion of campus moderatism, the "real" voice of the student majority at Harvard. One admitted motive for YD interest in Cambridge's housing problems is to head off the radicals on this issue. The YD's regard SDS people as fomentors of trouble to whom they must respond--particularly in defense of civil liberties.

Some members honestly see the club as the only alternative to the SDS at Harvard. This belief may partly explain how a nearly moribund organization that charges $2.50 for dues can currently remain the school's largest extracurricular. "Who spoke for the moderates on ROTC?" asked one member.

IN FACT one might have asked, "Who didn't?" HPC, SFAC, and HUC came out with fairly cautious statements. The CRIMSON, too, for that matter. But these particular moderate institutions have no constituencies; they do not behave like political parties. It's discouraging, of course, if undergraduates don't trust themselves to come to an opinion without embracing some form of group-think. Even then, what would a party of "moderates" do except circulate one more petition? But a certain ROTC-caught-us-unprepared jingoism pervades YD's these days.

They still must make students take their club seriously. Actually, they have more prestige off-campus than on. In recent years politicians in Massachusetts have actively begun to solicit student opinion. Young Dem officers have received calls from the State Legislature to sound off at their open hearings. The legislators, especially the Democrats, associate Harvard student opinion with the YD's much in the same way the Hollywood actors associate Harvard drama with the Hasty Pudding.

On campus, though, the YD's have to play down their ties with the national party. "We are not the Young Democrats any more," Schumer has frequently said. "We are the New Young Democrats." The difference between the New Young Democrats and the Old Young Democrats is mostly that the Old Young Democrats didn't know about Vietnam when they endorsed Johnson in 1964. Mr. Johnson did not even receive an offer to address the YD's when their invitations went out last week to major party leaders.

For the moment, the New Young Dems find themselves attached to a party they are wary of acknowledging until the party picks a Presidential candidate in 1972. Calling themselves Democrats now has no more political bite than calling themselves North Americans. But if the YD's become less self-conscious about SDS and respond to opportunities for influencing campaigns in Massachusetts, they may not have to wait until 1972 for their political identity.

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