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  The Sixth Party System in American Politics (1976-2012) (search mode)
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Author Topic: The Sixth Party System in American Politics (1976-2012)  (Read 4807 times)
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« on: January 18, 2012, 02:00:19 PM »

This will be a mini-TL, mostly focusing on American presidential and other elections, with some expansion into other areas here and there where necessary. It is a documentation of a realignment in American politics that never happened IOTL, and the way that a leftward shift in American politics in the 1970s might still be impacting us, even to this day.

Without further adieu, I give you...

The Sixth Party System in American Politics (1976-2012)

For most of Gerald Ford's short-lived administration, he was faced to deal with a Democratic supermajority in not only the House of Representatives, but also in the Senate. Only two months after taking office, the Democrats would win overwhelming majorities in both chambers, leaving Ford, an unelected President with only a small base of support within his party, a figurative lame duck from day one.

Conflicts between Ford and his own party, including a very public one over the nomination of Nelson Rockefeller for Vice President, eventually lead to the rise of a 'dump Ford' movement on the right. With the 1976 Presidential election fast approaching, Ford declared his intention to seek the White House for a term of his own, facing down actor-turned-Governor Ronald Reagan of California.

On the Democratic side, a crowded field of candidates soon gave way to a contest between the party’s key constituency groups. The odds-on favorite for the nomination, Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, represented in many ways a bridge between the farmer-labor progressive populism of the New Deal and the emerging coalition of youth, women’s, and minority groups within the party. Humphrey lead in nearly every opinion poll among Democrats and in their key constituencies: Organized labor was a lock for Humphrey, and African-American voters backed the father of the Civil Rights Act by a 2-1 margin over other possible candidates. Declared free of cancer and good for another run for the White House in 1975, Humphrey made it clear that he would contest the primaries in 1976 for the first time; a new campaign organization made it clear to the prospective candidate that avoiding the primary contests in favor of make a bid at the convention was a no-go in the post-McGovern-Fraser world of Democratic politics. With some reluctance, Humphrey agreed, and with the help of organized labor began laying down a rigorous campaign organization that rivaled even that of George McGovern’s only four years prior.

Though Humphrey can be described as a ‘bridge’ between the New Deal and the emerging alliance of minority groups, women, and professionals within the Democratic Party, his rivals in 1976 cannot be described in such glowing terms. While Humphrey was a unifying figure, an enduring reminder of the old guard of the Democratic Party that could yet appeal to the new elements of the party, the other candidates in the race represented very specific constituencies within the Democratic Party. Though there were initially some dozen candidates seeking the Democratic nomination in 1976, only a few are worth noting in terms of what they added to the race and how well they did with respect to the Humphrey campaign. College educated liberals and environmentalists rallied around Representative Morris ‘Mo’ Udall of Arizona; Hawkish cold warriors flocked to the campaign of Washington Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson; Southern moderates fell in line behind former Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia; Multicultural, yet fiscally conservative neoliberals backed California Governor Jerry Brown; and working class conservatives backed George Wallace for the Democratic nomination in the South and in the border regions of the old Confederacy. The strongest of these candidacies, at least from the vantage point of challenging the Democratic Party’s old guard lay with Congressman Udall; the conventional wisdom was that, if he managed to unite the McGovern coalition from 1972 around his candidacy, he’d have a shot at taking the nomination at the Convention, if not in the primary contest.
The first contests of the primary season were a mixed bag for both Senator Humphrey and President Ford. Iowa’s caucuses, having first come to national prominence only four years ago, gave a comfortable victory to Senator Humphrey over Congressman Udall, while Ronald Reagan managed a narrow victory over President Ford. A month later at the New Hampshire primary, those results were repeated, with Governor Reagan triumphing yet again over President Ford and Senator Humphrey winning a narrow victory over Congressman Udall. With niche candidacies on the Democratic contest dropping out in favor of Senator Humphrey or Congressman Udall respectively, the race narrowed further. The endorsement of Senator Jackson helped Humphrey score yet another impressive victory in the Massachusetts primary while President Ford likewise scored his first victory of the race in that primary. Ford and Humphrey both carried Vermont, while Governor Reagan and Governor Carter won in the state of Florida by relatively small margins. In Illinois, both Humphrey and Ford would win convincing victories over their opponents, leading up to the crucial North Carolina primary at the end of March.

The Ford campaign knew that a Reagan victory in North Carolina would ultimately mean a total shutout of the President of the South and likely guarantee Ronald Reagan’s nomination; Humphrey’s advisers likewise noted that if Humphrey was to win in November, he would have to be able to win in the South and quell the candidacies of both Jimmy Carter and George Wallace, which were regarded as a potential threat in the event of a brokered convention. In the end, Senator Humphrey was victorious in North Carolina, bringing together a coalition of liberals and African-Americans that allowed a narrow victory over Carter and Wallace, whose voters largely split the anti-Humphrey vote, allowing him to win the state. On the Republican side, a resounding victory for the Reagan campaign further took the steam out of Ford’s re-election bid, with some of the President’s closest advisers privately nudging the President to drop out of the race.

In April, Humphrey managed a small victory in the Badger State, beating Congressman Udall by a 37-36 margin while President Ford managed an eleven point victory over his Republican opponent. In Pennsylvania, Humphrey and Ford managed rather lopsided victories over their closest opponents. The Democratic field, in response, narrowed further with the suspension of Governor Carter’s campaign and his endorsement of Hubert Humphrey following his poor showing in both states. The month of May, which held the most primaries thus far, proved to be the ultimate endgame that the Humphrey campaign had been seeking since Iowa, though the Republican race would further drag on, despite continuing (and in many cases, expanding) support for Governor Reagan. Carter’s endorsement helped Humphrey defeat a strong challenge from Governor Wallace in Texas and in Georgia, and would effectively force Governor Wallace out of the race, though he vowed to endorse ‘nobody’ for the Presidency in 1976. Indiana, Washington D.C., Connecticut, West Virginia, Michigan, Maryland, Arkansas, Kentucky, Idaho, and Tennessee would ultimately be won by Senator Humphrey; Congressman Udall picked up his first victory of the primary season in the Nebraska primary, capitalizing on this with a victory in Oregon; Jerry Brown would win a respectable victory in Nevada. As the Humphrey campaign played up the aura of inevitability around his candidacy, Mo Udall, who had previously vowed to ‘fight on’ to the convention, folded in early June. Governor Brown refused to end his candidacy however, proving his seriousness to contest the nomination at the Convention with a narrow victory in the Montana primary. Criticizing Hubert Humphrey as ‘the Democratic Party’s past’ and ‘an avid supporter of the Vietnam War’, Jerry Brown hoped to unite anti-Humphrey liberals and moderates to force a vote at the convention. Downplaying Jerry Brown’s attacks, Humphrey managed victories in the June primaries in every state except for Brown’s home state of California. Although Brown refused to drop out of the race, Humphrey had a majority of the delegates going into the convention, his nomination all but assured. At the Democratic National Convention in New York City, Humphrey was ultimately nominated easily, Governor Brown stepping aside in a show of party unity. Humphrey chose as his running mate Governor Jimmy Carter as an appeal to the political center and in hopes of a competitive race in the South going into the general election. In his address to the convention, Humphrey promised a ‘Fair Society’ for all Americans, a program of reform that included labor law reform, measures for shoring up American industry, and measured but effective responses to Soviet aggression ‘wherever it rears its head’, in the words of Humphrey surrogate Scoop Jackson.

Figure 1: Democratic Party presidential primaries, 1976

Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota
Governor Jerry Brown of California
George Wallace of Alabama
Representative Mo Udall of Arizona
Jimmy Carter of Georgia is in gray.

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« Reply #1 on: January 18, 2012, 02:01:28 PM »

1976: Part II

Governor Reagan managed equally impressive victories in quick succession in the month of May on the Republican side. With victories in Texas, Indiana, Georgia, Nebraska, Arkansas, Idaho, North Dakota, Kentucky, Nevada, Oregon, and Tennessee, Reagan went into the June primaries hoping to close the book on the Ford candidacy and earn the title of presumptive nominee. Though he ultimately lost in Montana, South Dakota, and California, Ford would manage rather impressive wins in Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Ohio. Nevertheless, as the Republicans gathered in Kansas City, the Reagan campaign clearly had an edge in the delegate count and hoped to secure the nomination on the first ballot. With state delegations holding the final say in the matter, Reagan won a narrow majority of the delegates on the first ballot, and thus became the Republican nominee. In a show of party unity, Reagan chose as his running mate moderate Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker, hoping to shore up moderate Republican support for the general election.

Figure 2: Republican Party presidential primaries, 1976

Ronald Reagan of California
President Gerald Ford of Michigan

Although the election was initially seen as a lock for Senator Humphrey, Ronald Reagan’s performance at the first televised presidential debates in sixteen years gave his candidacy a big boost, though ultimately Humphrey’s efforts to tie Reagan to right-wing extremists within the GOP were successful. Parroting Lyndon Johnson’s attacks on Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Humphrey campaign attacked Reagan on Social Security, foreign policy matters, and his opposition to the Great Society programs of the administration Humphrey was a part of. Reagan’s campaign fired back that Humphrey’s campaign was ‘teeming’ with ‘reds’, wanted to ration medical care, and would allow the Soviets a free hand to do whatever they wanted, breaking with the Ford administration’s continuance of détente and calling for a more aggressive foreign policy.

On election night, Humphrey won a resounding victory over Reagan. Winning a majority of the popular vote (51-46) and a relatively comfortable margin in the Electoral College (332-206), Humphrey's election in 1976 is considered by many historians to be the beginning of the Sixth Party System in the United States (1976-2012), and considered to be a realigning election that saw new political coalitions emerge. Humphrey, a northern liberal, managed to win an impressive victory in the South despite running against an avowed conservative supportive of smaller government and state’s rights. Whether or not this was helped along by his choice of running mate is something of conjecture among historians, but the return of the South to the Democratic Party in 1976 and subsequent Democratic victories in the region are one of the key features of the Sixth Party System, becoming further engrained with Humphrey’s re-election in 1980. In the House and in the Senate, the Democrats further expanded their post-Watergate majorities, giving Humphrey perhaps the greatest opportunity to effect national policy of any American President since 1932.

Figure 3: U.S. Presidential Election, 1976

Senator Hubert H. Humphrey / James E. "Jimmy" Carter (D): 51.0% (332 Electoral Votes)
Ronald W. Reagan / Senator Richard S. Schweiker (R): 46.7% (206 Electoral Votes)
Eugene McCarthy (Independent): 0.96% (0 Electoral Votes)
Representative Larry McDonald / Thomas J. Anderson (American): 0.90% (0 Electoral Votes)
Roger MacBride / David Bergland (Libertarian): 0.26% (0 Electoral Votes)
Lester Maddox / William Dyke (American Independent): 0.14% (0 Electoral Votes)
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« Reply #2 on: January 20, 2012, 09:24:56 PM »


The first term of Hubert Humphrey has been described as ‘tumultuous’, ‘chaotic’, and ‘revolutionary’ by authors and historians of the late 1970s of both a liberal and conservative persuasion. Entering the Presidency with the largest partisan majorities since Lyndon Johnson in 1965, Humphrey initiated the ‘Fair Society’ with a religious fervor. Major reform initiatives, from labor law reform to full employment measures to the Equal Rights Amendment were all on the table; Congressional Democrats, at the urging of the President, would get down to work almost immediately, passing long-ranging reform legislation that rivaled the achievements of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson.

Most of Humphrey’s ‘Fair Society’ centered on the domestic. In the wake of the Watergate scandal and in hopes of shoring up his ‘good government’ credentials, Humphrey signed into law the Congressional Ethics and Responsibility Act (CERA) in 1977, enacting a number of provisions that barred members of Congress from becoming lobbyists for a ten year period after exiting Congress; required members of Congress to place all investments or stockholdings into blind trusts when they entered Congress; and set campaign finance contribution limits more stringent than those of the post-Watergate reform. In addition to CERA, President Humphrey signed into law the Regulatory Oversight and Abuse Deterrence (ROAD) Act to address the issue of regulatory capture, placing a ban on persons being put in charge of regulatory or cabinet positions for a period of ten years should there be a conflict of interest in the position that they would be serving in. President Humphrey also signed the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 into law, providing the first significant reform of the civil service in nearly a century. 

The first major piece of legislation to come out of the Humphrey administration, the Javits-Williams-Thompson Act (or the National Labor Relations Act of 1978, superseding the previous National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the ‘Wagner Act’) sought major labor law reform for the first time in forty years. Although business groups rallied in opposition to the act, it was ultimately successful owing to the talents of both the former Senate Majority Leader turned President and the Democratic Party’s leadership in both the House and the Senate. Among key provisions of the bill: a repeal of the 14(b) provision of the Taft-Hartley Act (which outlawed union shops in ‘right-to-work’ states), the right of unions to organize by majority sign-up (card-check, allowing unions to forego the election process if 55% of eligible workers signed union membership cards), contract continuity between employers, and an expansion of collective bargaining rights to workers in the public sector (a process first begun during the Kennedy administration). Organized labor, long a key component within the New Deal coalition, moved forward with organizing drives across the country, with labor leaders like Lane Kirkland (who would eventually succeed George Meany as head of the AFL-CIO in 1979) focusing the raw power of the union movement in organizing drives targeting the South and West.

Perhaps eclipsing the Javits-Williams-Thompson Act in real terms and arguably having the furthest reach of any of the Fair Society legislation was the Civil Rights Act of 1979. Originally a set of varied proposals from various Congressional committees, President Humphrey and his advisers (along with Speaker Tip O’Neill) managed to combine varied and separate proposals dealing not only with civil rights, but economic rights, as well, which Humphrey eloquently described as ‘the human rights we dare not acknowledge, but all hold to be true’. The Civil Rights Act of 1979 thus did what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not—it, for the first time, introduced the concept of ‘economic rights’ as being fundamentally fused together with civil rights. Included in the bill were provisions implementing the 27th Amendment (the Equal Rights Amendment, ratified in 1977), establishing the ‘right to a job’ (thus reinforcing the Javits-Hawkins Act, more of which will be discussed later), establishing the ‘right to medical care’ (fleshed out in the Social Security Act of 1979, more on that later), the ‘right to housing’, the ‘right to education’ (detailed in the America’s Comprehensive Health, Infrastructure, Education, Vocational, and Energy Act (ACHIEVE Act), passed in 1980), and the ‘right to care in old age’, as well as provisions that would enact measures dealing with Americans with disabilities. Notably absent from the final version of the law were provisions protecting the rights of gay and lesbian Americans, despite their inclusion in early drafts of the bill. The Civil Rights Act of 1979 was ‘the crowning achievement’ of the Humphrey administration, in the President’s own words.

The Social Security Act of 1979, authored largely by Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, provided for the greatest expansion of social welfare provision since the Great Society. The bill expanded the Medicare program and paid for the expansion with an incremental increase in the payroll tax over a period of seven years; persons who did not want to take Medicare early were allowed to keep their own insurance plan. The plan was also made ‘opt-out’ so that those without health insurance would be automatically enrolled in the program, starting January 1, 1980. The aforementioned ACHIEVE Act (America’s Comprehensive Health, Infrastructure, Education, Vocational, and Energy Act) enacted many of the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1979 as well as expanding funding for health-related research and development, laid the groundwork for a reorganization of the nation’s transportation systems, and established research and development funding for clean energy. The largest part of the bill, however, concerned education. Under the ACHIEVE Act, the federal government would assume a greater responsibility for the financing of public schools; the nitty-gritty of the act provided for 99% of funding for public schools to come from federal coffers, allowing the remaining 1% to be raised by property taxation (which itself was capped at 1%) with the intent of equalizing funding across the nation. Local control of schools would be retained, but new national standards would be adopted and ‘open enrollment’, i.e. public school choice would be made the norm across the United States, in hopes of preventing resegregation of public schools. ACHIEVE would also provide grants for students wanting to go into vocational school or technical training, as well as government grants for specific degrees that were seen to be ‘in short supply’ in the United States. The ACHIEVE Act also established the federal Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Department of Universities, Trades, and Research.

The last two pieces of important ‘rights and reform’ legislation passed by the Humphrey administration were the Civil Responsibilities Act of 1980 and the Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Act of 1978. Attempting to juggle the needs of multiple constituencies within the Democratic Party, the act is still controversial in many circles. Under the provisions of the Civil Responsibilities Act of 1980, draft registration was restored (a 1981 Supreme Court case would require women to register under provisions of the 27th Amendment) while blanket amnesty was granted to draft dodgers of the Vietnam era. Combined with this was a new national service program that required service of all Americans, regardless of gender; Eighteen year olds would be required to register with the federal government upon their eighteenth birthday and choose one of three options: three years of military service; three years of non-military civil service (with nearly endless options therein); and non-service, but remaining in active reserve for military service until age thirty. Those that chose to serve would be given a free education at the public, private, or vocational school of their chose; those that chose not to serve would face no penalty, but would not receive any of the aid going to those that did. The Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Act (DAPTRA) of 1978 took aim in reforming American law enforcement procedures and cracking down on illicit drug trafficking. In a radical departure from the ‘War on Drugs’ posturing of the Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations, the Humphrey administration embraced ‘harm reduction’ policies under the DAPTRA that provided for needle exchange programs, drug maintenance programs, ended mandatory prison time for drug offenses (replacing it with rehabilitation instead); and decriminalized possession and use of Cannabis, while reducing federal penalties associated with trafficking and distribution, setting a federal floor on drug enforcement law.
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« Reply #3 on: January 20, 2012, 09:25:42 PM »

1980: Part II

The Humphrey administration also sought a new strategy to revitalize the American economy. Although unemployment had declined since Humphrey took office, the President made it known that he would not accept anything short of full employment, and thus pushed forward with a revived version of his own 1975 Humphrey-Javits full employment bill, the Javits-Hawkins Balanced Growth and Economic Planning Act. Although originally an answer to the recessionary pressures of the early 1970s, Humphrey-Javits was rejected by the Ford administration and shelved for a time. President Humphrey, noting failures within traditional Keynesian policy to correct the problems of the American economy, with both unemployment and inflation becoming issues when economists had predicted that they were linked and yet opposed to one another, pushed for greater coordination between business and government to plan economic policy in concert. Thus Javits-Hawkins, co-sponsored by Humphrey’s strongest ally in the Senate, Jacob Javits, and his dear friend in the House, Congressman Augustus Hawkins, became the second big ticket item of the Humphrey administration. The legislation, signed into law by President Humphrey in October 1978, created the Office of National Economic Planning to oversee regulatory administration and the development of sectoral plans for American industry on a case-by-case basis. It should be noted that the NEP, for its part, did not share much in common with the previous attempt at large-scale economic planning in the United States, the NRA of the New Deal period. Rather, under its auspices, the government would collect and analyze economic information, examine trends, and identify resources and finances needed to effect planning; it would coordinate and integrate new government mandates of the past decade and a half and submit a six-year plan to Congress every two years, with hopes of being able to pre-empt future crises in food, energy, and other commodities before they happened. The bill further authorized the creation of a National Investment Bank that would raise funds for infrastructure projects and allowed for the automatic creation of public sector jobs for the unemployed whenever the unemployment rate floated above the 4% mark.

Although the Revenue Act of 1979 was borne originally one of the key issues Vice President Carter pushed in his bid for the White House (tax reform), the bill that managed to get through both the House and the Senate and onto the President’s desk wasn’t exactly what the Vice President had in mind. In hope of encouraging productive investment, the bill expanded the investment tax credit and made it permanent, making up lost tax dollars by closing corporate tax loopholes and accelerated depreciation allowances for industry. Critics of the New Left persuasion attacked the Humphrey administration as having ‘engaged in more corporate welfare than any American administration, ever’, at any rate, American industry welcomed the bill, which even Republicans came around in favor of after Humphrey’s presidency.

The Humphrey administration’s Fair Society also included a fair amount of legislation pertaining to the environment and energy policy. The Clean Water Act (1977), the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act (1980), the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act (1980), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA, which established a ‘superfund’ to clean up ecological devastation; 1980) moved to preserve American ecology, while the National Energy Conservation Policy Act (1978) and the establishment of the Department of Energy (1977) offered a new look in energy policy for the first time. Although another oil shock did not come in the late 1970s, the NECPA established a national energy corporation to purchase, export, and produce petroleum outside of American borders, with the exclusive right to develop resources on government-owned public lands. Another important piece of legislation in the energy arena was the Transportation Reorganization and Uniform Code (TRUC) Act (1980) which began laying the groundwork for an expansion of American railways in tandem with a revitalization of the Interstate Highway System.

Other important pieces of legislation that fall under the umbrella of the Fair Society include the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Act (1978) and the Taiwan Relations Act (1979). Though the Humphrey administration concerned itself largely with domestic issues, the President’s foreign policy record should not be overlooked in evaluating the Humphrey Administration from 1977 to 1981. President Humphrey maintained relatively good relations with United States allies and, despite campaign rhetoric that might have suggested otherwise, largely held to the ‘containment’ doctrine that had become standard Democratic Party policy since Harry Truman. It was in this area that Humphrey and his Vice President had the most disagreement; Carter pushed Humphrey to emphasize more than just rhetorical human rights with his dealings with leaders like the Shah of Iran (Humphrey notably sent Carter to attend the Shah’s funeral in Tehran in 1980), but the President stuck to a policy described by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirpatrick as, “they might be sons of bitches, but they’re our sons of bitches.” Although Humphrey’s foreign policy team was made up of a combination of neoliberals advocating a ‘human rights first’ policy (Jimmy Carter, Cyrus Vance), realists and advocates of containment (Zbigniew Brzezinski), and neoconservatives pushing for confrontation with the Soviet Union (Jeane Kirkpatrick, Scoop Jackson); that he managed to juggle between the lot of them and come up with a coherent, if chaotic foreign policy posture, is amazing in and of itself. Relations with the People’s Republic of China continued to normalize under President Humphrey, while the direction of talks between the United States and Soviet Union focused largely on arms limitation and nuclear non-proliferation. President Humphrey signed both the Non-Proliferation Act (1978) and initiated the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks, Round II upon taking office in 1977. Ultimately these produced a second SALT Treaty, but the treaty went un-ratified upon the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Condemning the invasion in the sharpest words possible yet refusing to enact anything beyond a grain and weapons embargo on the Soviets (one issue his foreign policy team could actually agree on), Humphrey privately authorized the financing of anti-Soviet forces within Afghanistan; owing to his own experience as Vice President during the Vietnam War however, Humphrey made it known that he would not commit American troops in any form or fashion to such an endeavor, drawing a line at aid, weapons, and military advisers.

Vice President Carter, unlike the Vice Presidents of yesteryear, maintained a relatively active and influential role within the Humphrey Administration, having perhaps the largest portfolio of any Vice President since Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson. Carter was regarded as the ‘conscience’ of the Humphrey administration on foreign policy, ever advocating on behalf of human rights and dissenting from the President’s containment strategy. At any rate, Carter worked diligently on promoting the administration’s energy policy and played a role in the failed second round of SALT from 1977 to 1979. Carter’s term as Vice President could not be noted without his rigorous advocacy on the Arab-Israeli conflict, of which he devoted much of his term. Although unable to get either party to the table for negotiations (who was going to meet with the Vice President?), Vice President Carter laid the groundwork for future negotiations that he would (hopefully, anyway) lead one day to absolve the conflict. As the 1980 election neared, many pundits questioned whether or not Humphrey was too old to run for another term and suggested Vice President Carter run for the spot himself; Carter would have none of it, and it was never in the offing to begin with—he would have to wait four more years, Humphrey or no Humphrey.
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