Louisiana Mischief Man


November 24, 1991|By RAY JENKINS | RAY JENKINS,Ray Jenkins is editor of The Evening Sun's editorial pages.

At the risk of ruining a pleasant Sunday morning, I have bad news for those who have grown weary of an overload of David Duke: The worst is yet to come.

Two weeks ago I drew some ominous parallels between Mr. Duke and his forerunner in the colorful world of Louisiana demagoguery, Huey Long. It's not an exact comparison, because Long essentially exploited economic hardship which gripped the nation in the 1930s, while David Duke adds to the mix the explosive element of racial fear. This makes him less like Long than like former Gov. George Wallace of Alabama in the 1960s. And since Mr. Duke seems to be in the race for president, it's worth examining the Wallace model.

Unlike Mr. Duke, whose racist past ultimately proved to be his undoing eight days ago in the Louisiana governor's race, Mr. Wallace started out, at least within the Southern context, as a racial liberal. It was only after a bitter defeat at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan's candidate that he embraced the politics of race-baiting.

It the truth be known, Mr. Wallace always greatly preferred the excitement of the race to the grunt work of governing, and he soon discovered that what played well in Dixie played well in Peoria, too. In 1964, exploiting blue-collar anxiety over civil-rights legislation being enacted that year, Mr. Wallace entered Democratic primaries of three states against Lyndon Johnson, who was at the peak of his popularity, and drew astonishingly large votes -- including 42 percent in Maryland.

Four years later, in 1968, he mounted a third-party campaign in all 50 states. All through the campaign the public-opinion polls gave him about 20 percent of the vote. On election day that dropped to 13 percent, and the nation breathed a sigh of relief that demagoguery had been decisively rejected. But to this day it is not fully perceived how close Mr. Wallace came to altering the outcome of that election.

To understand that one must fathom the arcane and anachronistic method of electing presidents -- that largely hidden institution that we call the electoral college.

It is now conceded that in the 1968 race Wallace took substantially more votes from Richard Nixon than he did from Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee. The popular vote between those two was extremely close -- each receiving just over 31 million votes. Mr. Wallace received 10 million.

He also led in five Deep South states, giving him 46 electoral votes -- votes which without question would have gone to Mr. Nixon had Mr. Wallace not been in the race. Moreover, he came within a whisker of taking enough popular votes in several key Midwestern states to deprive Mr. Nixon of those state's electoral votes.

The bottom line is this: If Mr. Wallace had polled just a few thousand more votes in the key states of Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin, Hubert Humphrey would have been elected president in 1968 instead of Richard Nixon -- never mind that in a two-man race Nixon probably would have won by a landslide.

The same dynamic that applied in 1968 applies for David Duke in 1992 -- or 1996. If he should mount a third-party campaign -- and it's easier than you might think, thanks to the ground-breaking work done 25 years ago by Mr. Wallace -- he could easily divert enough disaffected white votes from George Bush in those same key industrial states to throw their electoral votes to the Democratic nominee. In a close election -- like, say, the Carter-Ford race in 1976 -- a shift of just few thousand votes in just a couple of states could change the outcome of the presidential election. Let's not forget, it was Mr. Duke's candidacy which eliminated Republican Gov. Buddy Roemer from the Louisiana race in the first place; had it been a race between Governor Roemer and former Gov. Edwin Edwards alone, Mr. Roemer doubtless would have won easily.

So Mr. Duke's defeat in the Louisiana governor's race brought little comfort to President Bush or other Republican hopefuls of 1996. They know that David Duke stands no chance of ever being elected president of the United States. But they also know that his capacity for mischief will grow in face of economic hardship and the misperceived causes of that hardship.

He seems likely to become for the Republicans in the 1990s what George Wallace was for the Democrats in the 1960s. Even if he vanished today, his ''message,'' so warmly applauded by Vice President Quayle the day after the election, would be carried on by some other attractive, skilled demagogue who doesn't carry the baggage of overt racism and fascism that encumbered David Duke. There was scant cause for the Republicans to celebrate when David Duke lost in Louisiana eight days ago.

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