If the 1968 Republican convention in Miami Beach is remembered for anything, it is for Richard Nixon’s selection of Spiro Agnew, the worst vice-presidential nominee in modern history. The sticky-fingered Agnew, who resigned in 1973, had an incurable habit of accepting envelopes filled with cash in his vice-presidential office.
The 1968 GOP convention may have been a sleepy affair compared with tear gas wafting over the Democrats in Chicago that year. But it has suddenly become relevant as the closest historical analog to the coming stop-Trump battles at this year’s Republican gathering in Cleveland.
Richard Nixon — tanned, rested and ready six years after he lost a comeback gubernatorial race in California — arrived in Miami Beach with a delegate total hovering around a 667-vote majority. But the “New Nixon” (as some of the more credulous columnists called him) faced cannon fire on both his left and his right.
Liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller, that perpetual White House dreamer, had entered the race in late April after the collapse of George Romney (Mitt’s father). But the only way that Rockefeller could hope to thwart Nixon on the first ballot was with the active candidacy of his ideological opposite: a first-term California governor named Ronald Reagan.
Even though Reagan delayed formally declaring his candidacy until the opening day of the convention, he held a secret meeting a month earlier with an emissary from Rockefeller.
At the time, Reagan made clear that he would be a candidate in Miami Beach and the Rockefeller forces could count on his efforts to snatch southern delegates from Nixon.
Even though there never was any formal coordination between the Rockefeller and Reagan camps, the pincer movement almost worked. If South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond had not held the Mason-Dixon line for Nixon (and won the implicit promise of a go-slow federal desegregation policy), then the South would have bolted to Reagan.
If there had been a second or even a third ballot in Miami Beach, the fight ultimately would have come down to Rocky versus the Gipper. And either way, with a lurch to the left by the Republicans or a premature Reagan nomination, the history of the 1970s would have been far different.
My fascination with the 1968 Republicans is partly autobiographical: I covered the convention for my college newspaper, the Michigan Daily. And while I filed stories about a young antiwar delegate backing Harold Stassen (who got exactly two first-ballot votes), I vividly recall being mesmerized by my initial exposure to Reagan as he addressed the North Carolina delegation.
The lessons from 1968 for Ted Cruz and John Kasich shine through the haze of nearly a half-century. The two remaining anti-Trump candidates do not have to forge a binding agreement. They merely should pursue their own self-interest in a way that does not jeopardize their mutual need to stop Trump from reaching a 1,237-delegate majority.
Both anti-Trump campaigns have had moments of self-defeating stupidity this month like Cruz suddenly making a last-minute campaign appearance in Columbus on the weekend before the winner-take-all Ohio primary. Or Kasich’s foray in Utah, which jeopardized Cruz’s chances of winning 50 percent of the vote and all 40 delegates.
While some analysts insist that Kasich should withdraw to give Cruz a clear shot at Trump, an equally strong argument can be made for a 1968-style pincer strategy. As David Wasserman at the website FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, there are five remaining states on the primary calendar (including New York) which allocate delegates proportionally. And there are other areas, particularly northern California, where Kasich would almost certainly run a stronger race against Trump than Cruz.
The difficulty that both Cruz and Kasich now face — unlike their ideological counterparts in 1968 — is that many Republicans no longer recognize that a political convention is a decision-making body. A recent Monmouth University Poll found that 54 percent of Republicans believe Trump should be nominated if he came into Cleveland with the most delegates, but less than a majority.
The truth is that there are many reasons why the battle for the future of the Republican Party should be decided by the delegates in Cleveland rather than in TV studios or by simply toting up who won the most primaries.
With the primaries stretching over a four-month period from February until June, the potential for buyer’s remorse must be recognized. Elaine Kamarck, the author of “Primary Politics” and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, offers a fascinating what-if scenario:
What if John Edwards had corralled a majority of the 2008 convention delegates and his sex scandal had been revealed just as the Democrats arrived in Denver? Should the delegates have behaved like robots and nominated a candidate certain to bring embarrassment and defeat to their party?
The Republicans — whether they choose to recognize it or not — have already reached that point with Trump. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 47 percent of Republican women could not imagine themselves voting for Trump. When a would-be presidential candidate may lose nearly half the women in his own party in November, it is a formula for a 50-state wipeout.
With only one primary (Wisconsin) between now and April 19 when New York votes, we have reached the moment on the political calendar when Republicans should pause to reflect on this demolition derby of a presidential race. If someone wrote a novel about 2016, it should be called “Primary Choler.”
But looking back at the lessons of 1968, it is worth remembering that Reagan and Rockefeller would have stopped Nixon on the first ballot without the intervention of former segregationist Strom Thurmond.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. He is a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter at @MrWalterShapiro.
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