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The Next Eugene McCarthy

“The next Eugene McCarthy” refers to a politician or candidate who, like Senator McCarthy did during the 1968 presidential campaign, galvanizes a significant grassroots movement particularly among younger voters, often around issues that are either controversial or not part of the mainstream political conversation.

McCarthy is best remembered for his strong anti-Vietnam War stance, which inspired a legion of “Clean for Gene” volunteers and seriously challenged the establishment.

To label someone “the next Eugene McCarthy” implies that this individual has the potential to disrupt traditional political paradigms, possibly creating a sea change in public opinion and party politics, although the label also often carries a subtext of long-shot candidacy or potential for failure at the institutional level.

More on “The Next Eugene McCarthy”

The label given to upstart Democratic presidential candidates who unsuccessfully challenge their party’s heavyweights.

McCarthy mounted a left-wing, anti-establishment presidential bid that still resonates within politics. In the 1968 cycle, the Minnesota Democratic senator effectively forced President Lyndon B. Johnson from the race after a strong New Hampshire primary showing. McCarthy, though, eventually lost the nomination to fellow Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey, the vice president.

Just as politics is about successfully defining your opponent, political journalism is all about defining politicians. And in summer 2015, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders made for an easy comparison to McCarthy after drawing massive crowds in his bid to seize the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton. “Is Bernie Sanders the political reincarnation of Eugene McCarthy?” asked the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson. “I doubt it, but let’s hope he makes the Democratic presidential race interesting.”

This pro-Democratic line of thinking contended Sanders’s challenge from the left ultimately would benefit Clinton’s general-election prospects. But Bloomberg View’s Jonathan Bernstein cited key differences between LBJ’s 1968 reelection bid and Clinton’s 2016 run: “When Johnson dropped out, he was deeply unpopular with a large segment of his party. There is no evidence that Clinton is in a similar situation.”

Sanders isn’t the first Vermonter to get the McCarthy treatment. A former governor of the Green Mountain State, Howard Dean, directly made the comparison at an April 2003 rally in New Hampshire: “In this state, in 1968, there was a senator named Eugene McCarthy who drove an incumbent president, Lyndon Johnson, out of the race . . . And that’s going to happen again.” Dean’s predictive powers were off: he flamed out in the Iowa caucuses and lost the Democratic nod to Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Another McCarthy-esque challenge never quite got off the ground. As the 2008 Democratic presidential race approached, Wisconsin Democratic senator Russ Feingold flirted with an anti-Iraq War platform run. “By issuing an early call for a timetable to withdraw US troops from Iraq, Sen. Russ Feingold could emerge as the Democrats’ anti-war candidate of 2008, in the tradition of Eugene McCarthy and Howard Dean,” the Associated Press reported in December 2005.

From Doubletalk © 2016 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “The Next Eugene McCarthy” in a sentence

  • Amid a groundswell of youth activism on climate change, many in the progressive wing are starting to view the freshman senator as the next Eugene McCarthy, capable of bringing environmental issues to the forefront of mainstream politics.
  • While his anti-establishment rhetoric and appeal among young voters have led some pundits to dub him the next Eugene McCarthy, others question whether his movement has the staying power to effect real change within the party.
  • Being called the next Eugene McCarthy can be a double-edged sword; it captures the energy and idealism of a campaign, but it also alludes to McCarthy’s ultimate failure to capture the Democratic nomination, serving as a cautionary tale of how grassroots movements might falter at the institutional level.