Democrats now control the House for the first time since 2010. Yet they still have no discernible national political leader or a sweeping political program.
They can solve these problems quickly, however, if they take inspiration from Hubert Humphrey, a former senator from Minnesota, vice president and 1968 Democratic presidential nominee. Despite never occupying the White House, Humphrey earned serious accolades. House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass. called him “the most genuine liberal the nation has ever produced,” and former Vice President Walter Mondale labeled him “the country’s conscience.” And in 1978, more than 1,000 congressional aides and newsmen voted Humphrey the most successful lawmaker of the 20th century.
Humphrey’s clear principles and legislative proposals on topics such as civil rights and health care offer a path to a robust and moral Democratic agenda — one that can propel the party to success again.
Humphrey is perhaps best remembered for his dramatic speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, exhorting his colleagues to “walk out from under the shadow of states’ rights and into the bright sunshine of human rights.” The speech caused Southern Democrats to bolt the convention and form the Dixiecrat Party, but it also energized President Harry Truman’s lackluster campaign and led to his stunning upset of Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Most important, Humphrey put civil rights on his party’s, and the nation’s, agenda, where they have remained to the present day.
Humphrey won a resounding victory that year over conservative Republican Sen. Joseph Ball, campaigning for “health care for all” and insisting that it was time for someone in Congress “to raise his voice for the underprivileged and oppressed.” He won significant support from the middle class, laborers and farmers.
Although ostracized by long-serving Southern Democratic senators, a move that left him feeling “lonely, bitter and broke” (his family always lacked money), Humphrey remained committed to his positions, aggressively pursuing the agenda that drove his immense legislative and political success for the next three decades. In 1949, he co-sponsored bills to create national health insurance. He also proposed federal loans and grants to help build and equip consumer cooperatives that would contract with doctors to provide members with prepaid medical coverage, with the hope that good salaries would attract doctors to work in group practices in less populous areas. Although these bills did not become law, they animated the liberal push for universal health insurance that has remained a top Democratic priority.
The coming of the Korean War in 1950 and the election of Republican Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 forestalled most liberal legislation, but an undeterred Humphrey soon experienced his first legislative triumph: the 1954 Agricultural Trade Development Assistance Act, which promoted sale of “surplus” agriculture at below-market prices to poorer nations. In 1957, the same year he announced to his colleagues, “I am a liberal without apology,” Humphrey led the successful crusade to enact the first Civil Rights Act since Reconstruction. The law, although limited in scope, made it a federal offense to interfere with a person’s right to vote in federal elections. Humphrey declared, presciently, that it was “only the beginning” of civil-rights legislation.
During the early 1960s, Humphrey agreed to serve as majority whip to round up the votes for President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier legislation, much of which he sponsored. This included the Food for Peace Act (which dispensed food on a humanitarian basis), the Peace Corps (perhaps the administration’s most popular legislation), the establishment of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons and the landmark 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban treaty, which prohibited underwater and atmospheric atomic testing.
In 1964, Humphrey organized the Democrats as never before, mastered all 11 sections of the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act and became the “generalissimo,” as his colleagues called him, who beat back conservative parliamentary and legal challenges and broke a 75-day filibuster, the longest in history, to secure the bill that banned discrimination on the basis of race, religion, nationality or sex in employment, public accommodations and schools. The law opened the way to the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination by home sellers, brokers or real estate companies. Both passed while Humphrey was vice president.
As Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, Humphrey was also a strong voice for Great Society programs, especially Medicare and Medicaid, which were down payments on his dream for national health insurance.
After losing the 1968 presidential race, Humphrey again won election to the Senate in 1970. He promptly introduced sweeping legislation to establish national health insurance and a National Development Bank to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, but Republicans and the Nixon administration defeated the bills.
Humphrey, who had initially warned Johnson against expanding the Vietnam conflict but as vice president supported the war, also turned sharply against the war when back in the Senate. He honestly admitted that “I am not without sin in that area,” but insisted that the war depleted the United States’ moral strength and resources. Beginning in 1971, he voted for measures proposing to cut off military funding, and he co-sponsored the 1973 War Powers Act, limiting the president’s use of force abroad without congressional approval. He insisted that the U.S. acted dangerously as a world power with knowledge of only half the world — and almost none of the less-developed world — and needed to rid itself of its “cultural imperialism.”
In 1974, Humphrey joined with Rep. Augustus Hawkins, D-Calif., to sponsor the Equal Opportunity and Full Employment Act, which was intended to mandate that the federal government budget for full employment and guarantee every able person a job at “a fair rate of compensation,” with the right to sue for a job if none was forthcoming.
Although the final product, which passed after Humphrey’s death, had been watered down and hasn’t lived up to his hopes, it was a sign that Humphrey, ever the master lawmaker, tenaciously pursued his agenda, and worked to improve Americans’ lives until his last days.
Conservative Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas perhaps said it best: Humphrey may have “overshot the presidency,” but he became instead “one of the great world leaders, one of the major moral forces of our time or of any time.”
Today, Democrats have leaders with fine records and the ability to inspire fellow citizens as Humphrey did. They include Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a fellow Minnesotan, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sherrod Brown of Ohio.
But to succeed, they must pick up Humphrey’s mantle. They must restore genuine concern for the “underprivileged and oppressed” and proud, progressive policies — including “true health care for all” — to the core of the Democratic agenda. That will open the way for all Americans to “see a better vision of what we can become” and share in that reality. Humphrey did this during his 30 years on the national political scene, and as President Jimmy Carter said, in so doing, he not only advanced his career and legacy but “blessed our country” more than any president of his era.
Arnold A. Offner is the Cornelia F. Hugel professor of history emeritus at Lafayette College and author of “Hubert Humphrey: The Conscience of the Country.” He wrote this article for the Washington Post.