A ’60s flashback

Back in November 2007 Newsweek ran a cover story on the year 1968. “Why do we keep coming back to it? And why won’t it leave us alone?” the magazine asked. That question came to mind during the Democrats’ debate from Nevada on Tuesday. Why does this election keep reminding me of the ’60s, especially that one incredible year of political change and turmoil? Hillary Clinton is the answer.

Sen. Clinton (D-N.Y.) is a prototypical child of the ’60s, a baby boomer who came of age in the turbulent politics of that decade. Back then we all argued mightily over things that mattered, issues we believed only our generation was capable of solving: the rights of women, of African-Americans, of migrant workers and gays. How had our nation drifted into a foolish foreign war — and how could we end it? Just what is America — and what do we want it to be? How did we lose control of America’s vision to a bunch of pin-striped bean counters and duplicitous politicians?

Sound familiar? Forty years later we are still debating the same questions with only slight variations. And no candidate more recalls the style of those debates than Hillary Clinton. We’ve had quite enough of that, thank you.

In the Michigan non-primary Sen. Clinton’s name was on the ballot along with only Sen. Chris Dodd (Conn.), former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. You could either vote for her or for one of three candidates who’ve either dropped out or dropped from sight, or choose “uncommitted,” an unfamiliar and somewhat arcane political move. Nearly 70 percent of African-American voters opted for “uncommitted” — as did nearly half of voters under 30. While she carried 58 percent of the overall vote, Hillary did not fare well with two groups she could face in large numbers in the coming weeks.

We saw why that may be happening in Tuesday’s debate. Sen. Clinton was still playing the old political game of fear, attack and divisiveness. She continually returned to the theme that she, alone, was prepared to be president from day one. Voters have “to imagine us in the Oval Office,” she said. The next president has to be prepared to protect our country on day one. She again raised the specter of terrorist attacks, reminding us that British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had to deal with two of them in his first days at 10 Downing Street. “We have enemies,” she said, and “we better be prepared to deal with them.” When asked if she was suggesting that Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) was not ready for prime time, she said that was for voters to decide. She got the words right but her tone and body language made clear the answer should be obvious.

As she has in the past, Clinton suggested Obama was an inspiring speaker but that “We’ve got to get back in the solutions business … I want to be a problem solver.” That language sounds very similar to her husband’s 1996 reelection campaign, which focused on small victories, triangulation and narrow issues. It worked 12 years ago, but the nation is looking for more than that now.

Sen. Obama, on the other hand, boldly proclaimed that being president is not about “shuffling paperwork. It is having a vision for the future.” He spoke of bringing people together and noted that President Bush promised to run the government with MBA-like efficiency and succeeded only in running our nation into the ground.

This week California Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D) endorsed Sen. Obama, saying we need a president “who will summon us to unity, who will allow us to believe that America is a country whose ideals and principles matter … We want to be proud of America.” She also pointed out that Sen. Obama has more years as an elected official than Sen. Clinton, but that wasn’t the issue. “America needs a leader who can galvanize us for change,” Lofgren said.

On the eve of the New Hampshire primary a small group of politically active boomers gathered for dinner. The talk turned to how we’d fought for change all our political lives and hadn’t really accomplished much. In fact, we’d helped create a political atmosphere of deadlock and division. One spoke up about the movement that seems to be growing behind Obama. The message he was hearing was “Thanks, but we’ll take it from here.” I think he’s right. We didn’t do all that well; now it’s time to let someone else try.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.  E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com