David Duke announced this week that he may run for president next year. "I've authorized and permitted a committee to be formed to explore the possibility of entering a number of [Republican] primaries," he said.
He doesn't expect to be nominated, of course, but he and some analysts believe he might have an impact. He says, "That could make [President Bush] stop drifting to the left."
Maybe, but I doubt it. The president may stop drifting to the left, but it won't be because of David Duke. To believe racial extremists can have such an effect is to ignore modern American history and the workings of the two-party system. Racial extremists of the Duke sort never do well in primaries, either for themselves or their causes.
In the 1960s, George Wallace was the best known national symbol of opposition to civil-rights laws and progress, like David Duke today. Unlike David Duke, George Wallace was a successful politician. He had legitimacy conferred on him by the voters of his state. He won high office.
In 1964, when he first decided to enter Democratic presidential primaries to protest his party's support of the Civil Rights Act and the leadership of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson on that issue, he was Governor Wallace of Alabama. He had won that office in 1962. He entered Democratic presidential primaries in three non-Southern states, Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland. His opponent in each case was a high-ranking state officeholder running as a stand-in for the president.
Governor Wallace did fairly well. He won no state's delegates, but he did better than expected, which is usually regarded as a success in politics. He got 34 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, 30 percent in Indiana and 43 percent in Maryland.
This, he and his supporters contended, demonstrated strong opposition within the party to the president's civil-rights agenda. Governor Wallace was winning by losing, some argued at the time, because his large minority support would modify the party's leftward movement.
In fact, the civil-rights bill passed undiluted (with the strong support of the delegations from those three states). That summer Democrats renominated Lyndon Johnson. They adopted a platform plank that said, "The Civil Rights Act deserves and requires full observance by every American and fair, effective enforcement."
Not only that, but the Republicans, though nominating Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who had voted against the Civil Rights Act, endorsed it in its platform.
Both parties responded to majority, centrist elements within. The Wallace candidacy had none of the impact he envisioned.
Therefore, in 1968, he formed a third party, hoping that that route would produce the effect he was seeking. Here, too, the workings of the two-party system prevent extremism from infecting the political workings of the nation.
George Wallace became the leader and presidential candidate of the American Independent Party. Its platform denounced not only "the 'so-called' Civil Rights Act," but called for returning to the states sovereignty on a host of matters, and promised a constitutional amendment making federal judgeships, including those of the Supreme Court, elective offices.
The platform and George Wallace's speeches dealt with a range of issues, but it was clear to all that he was running against civil-rights advances purely and simply, just as David Duke is today. Again both major parties endorsed civil-rights legislation and the enforcement of it. The Wallace candidacy fared poorly. He got 13.5 percent of the vote. He carried only five deep South states.
David Duke has also indicated he might run as a third-party candidate in 1992 if his assessment of a Republican primary contest is non-promising. Give that he's no George Wallace, it is unlikely that he would be able to do even that well.
Another race-based third-party movement occurred in 1948. Strom Thurmond walked out of the Democratic Party in protest to its civil-rights attitudes. Like George Wallace later (and unlike David Duke), Thurmond had political legitimacy. He had been elected governor of South Carolina in 1946. Also like George Wallace, he did poorly as a third-party (Dixiecrats) candidate, carrying only four Southern states and getting only 2.4 percent of the popular vote.
One more word about George Wallace. In 1972 and 1976, he ran again in the Democratic primaries. There was no incumbent Democratic president either time. In 1972 Governor Wallace won in five states, came in second or third in six. That was the year he was shot in a shopping center at Laurel. This generated enormous sympathy for him. Nevertheless, he was not considered a realistic candidate for the nomination, and the 1972 Democratic platform endorsed busing for desegregation of schools -- opposition to which was a major element in the Wallace campaign that year. In 1976 he fared poorly, losing to Jimmy Carter, his fellow Southerner and former ally, who ran on a pro-civil rights platform.
Today the ex-governor of Alabama is retired and an invalid. Before he retired he was elected and re-elected, moderating his views on civil rights as time passed, ultimately winning solid black support at the polls. Today Strom Thurmond is a U.S. senator; last month he voted for the 1991 Civil Rights Act. This shows just how effectively the two-party dynamic forces those on the fringes in toward the center over time (after first --ing their hopes of being effective political forces in or out of their parties.)
It is probably unfair to compare David Duke to George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. As noted above, they had the support of a majority of the people of their states when they ran for higher office. Governor Wallace won that office five times. Senator Thurmond was elected governor once and senator seven times. Furthermore, they have shown themselves open to change on that most vexing of issues, race relations. David Duke has changed his rhetoric, but clearly not his views.
It can even be argued that the difference between him and them is that their issues were openly race-related when they were leading their crusades, while he has sneakily grafted his racism onto really race-neutral social issues.
David Duke has never been elected anything but state representative. He has lost two statewide races in Louisiana in the past year. It is interesting to note as he and national commentators contemplate his 1992 presidential quest in either the Republican primaries or as a third-party leader that the record shows him to be a poor vote getter by normal standards of measurement.
Saturday a week ago he got 38-plus percent of the vote. That is even less than the percentage of the gubernatorial vote William Shephard got here against William Donald Schaefer in 1990. How does such a poor home-state showing translate into national standing? It doesn't.
Some Duke supporters make a lot of the fact that he got 55 percent of the white vote. So? Big deal! Republicans almost always win the white vote in the South by a substantial margin. A number of Republican candidates for statewide office in Louisiana and elsewhere in the South in recent elections got more than 39 percent of the total vote and more than 55 percent of the white vote.
And in his 1990 Senate race, David Duke got 44 percent of the total vote and almost 60 percent of the white vote. His curve is down, not up, at home, as he becomes better known, and that would occur nationally. On the basis of what they now know about him, according to the latest Gallup Poll, only 10 percent of Americans would vote for him for political office in their own states.
Will David Duke succeed where his betters have failed? Of course not. But that doesn't necessarily mean he won't try. He may well run for something in 1992. Louisiana State University professor Mark Carleton says of him, "He's a professional office-seeker, and he will run for something until he dies." The New Orleans Times-Picayune worries that a Duke run in the primaries will result in enough protest votes to allow him to "claim a place" at the Republican National Convention in Houston next year, which would "strengthen his claim for legitimacy."
Maybe, but history also teaches that there are ways to avoid even such embarrassments as this.
In 1964 George Wallace got nothing from the national convention. President Johnson was nominated by acclamation. There were no nominations of or speeches for Governor Wallace or anybody else.
Then there was 1932. In the depths of the Depression, Sen. Joseph France of Maryland out-polled President Hoover in the primaries as a whole and beat him head-to-head in seven states. No one took this seriously. Everyone knew people were just voting their frustrations. When Senator France showed up at the national convention, he was removed bodily, and President Hoover was renominated on the first ballot.
I don't believe Republican convention officials would have to resort to that. I believe that if David Duke runs in the primaries next year, the voters will give him the bum's rush.