1968 was a volatile year, coming near the end of a volatile decade. The 1960s was a decade that had seen a President assassinated, the escalation of the seemingly never-ending Vietnam War (itself far shorter than our current presence in Iraq and Afghanistan), race riots, landmark civil rights legislation, and -- through it all -- nationwide unrest.
Although there have been many instances where a sitting President has sought and lost reelection, the winning challenger has almost always been from the opposing party. Jimmy Carter lost to Ronald Reagan. George Herbert Walker Bush lost to Bill Clinton. And, earlier, serving in the middle of the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover lost to Franklin Roosevelt.
As far as I can tell, there has been no incident of a sitting President who ran for reelection, and lost to a member of his own party.
Then, of course, there's Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson was a powerful leader in the Democratic Party, having started as a Congressional aide, he worked his way up to Senate Majority Leader. Famously, LBJ became President on the death by assassination of JFK.
In 1964, Johnson then ran for election as President in his own right, and won a landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, capturing more than 60% of the vote and winning all but five states.
By 1968, Johnson's heart didn't seem in the game. He didn't actually go to New Hampshire to campaign in the first Democratic primary. Even so, it was assumed he'd win, and he did.
But not by much.
Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy ran against Johnson in New Hampshire on a solid anti-war platform. While McCarthy didn't win the primary, the shocker was just how strong his showing was. He took 42% of the vote to Johnson's 49%.
Less than a week later, seeing that Johnson was far more vulnerable than expected, Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the race. RFK, of course, was the brother of the assassinated JFK. Less known was that he was not a friend of Johnson, having effectively sidelined Johnson during the later's term as VP during the short-lived Kennedy administration.
A little over two weeks after RFK entered the race, Johnson backed out of the 1968 campaign, stating "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President."
All this leads us to President Obama and the upcoming 2012 elections.
Mr. Obama can't seem to catch a break. While he can hang his hat on the capture of Osama bin Laden, even that clear victory has been tarnished by yesterday's helicopter shoot down by the Taliban that resulted in the death of nearly two dozen members of SEAL Team Six. Our condolences go out to the families.
Obama seems to be living under a storm of bad news. Whether it's the historical, if disputed downgrading of America's credit rating, the continued lack of job growth, the never-ending war, or his almost constantly low national approval ratings, President Obama's "Yes, we can" campaign promise seems increasingly less promising.
At the beginning of this column, I asked if President Obama is vulnerable to a 2012 reelection threat from his own party? Here's my answer.
I call it as highly unlikely. First, there's no compelling alternative Democratic candidate waiting in the wings. Certainly Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid aren't competitors. Hillary Clinton is far too smart to chance running in this election climate. Joe Biden knows he's a non-starter.
There are some (not many, though) promising up-and-coming Democrats, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, but most rising stars know not to challenge a sitting President in their own party. Other formerly rising stars have been sidelined by their unhealthy fascination with Twitter.
It's also unlikely that President Obama will bow out of the 2012 election. LBJ, while hugely ambitious, never seemed to like the Executive Branch nearly as much as the Legislative Branch. There were also rumors that his health was rocky (he died on January 22, 1973).
On the other hand, the only thing questionable about Barack Obama's health is his convoluted Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, which the President signed into law on March 30, 2010. Having turned 50 just last week, President Obama is certainly healthy enough to run again.
Unless Mr. Obama simply gets fed up with Washington politics and decides to retire (a highly, highly unlikely scenario), he's going to seek, and will accept, the nomination of his party for another term as our President.
So, no. President Obama is not vulnerable to a 2012 reelection threat from his own party.
On the other hand, the Republicans are soiling themselves in anticipation, because they believe President Obama is deeply vulnerable to a 2012 reelection threat from the GOP. For this, however, the GOP should take a lesson from 1968 as well. The Democrats of 1968 were highly fragmented, and that fragmentation (along with the RFK assassination and Hubert Humphrey's lackluster candidacy) led to the election of Richard Nixon.
The GOP of today is also quite fragmented and unless the fringe elements can be reigned in, the Republicans might field someone far too right-of-center and the critical swing votes of centrist independents might swing once again to Mr. Obama.
There, then, is the election lesson for the GOP: crazy does not win Presidential elections.
The GOP needs to field someone sane, sober, centrist, and responsible. That means that while possible candidacies like Rick Perry's evangelical revival tour might play well to the party base, it probably won't get him elected.
Who does that leave? Probably Mitt Romney. Or, you know, perhaps The Donald will change his mind again.
Heh, no matter what happens, it'll be quite a ball game.