McGovern Beats Nixon
How the South Dakota senator remade the Right
By Daniel McCarthy
January 12, 2009 Issue
George McGovern is enjoying a renaissance. The 86-year-old ex-senator
best known for losing the 1972 presidential election in an
avalanchehe carried only one state, Massachusettswon new friends
among libertarians last spring with two startlingly laissez-faire
op-eds in the Wall Street Journal. He'll receive further attention in
January when Times Books publishes his Abraham Lincoln, the latest
installment in the Sean Wilentz-edited American Presidents series.
But sweetest of all for the senator from Mitchell, South Dakota, in
November he finally came back to win the White Houseor so you might think.
Republicans had a hard time distinguishing Barack Obama from the
Democrat Nixon trounced 36 years earlier. Writing at National Review
Online, Victor Davis Hanson christened the Illinois senator, "the
Second Coming of McGovern." In Commentary, Joshua Muravchik warned
that Obama "comes to us from a background farther to the Left than
any presidential nominee since McGovern, or perhaps ever." His
associates certainly seemed to come straight out of the McGovern
bestiary: conservatives pounced on the opportunity to tie Obama to
the New Left (via Bill Ayers) and black radicalism (via Rev. Jeremiah
Wright). Among liberals, Hillary Clinton supporter Harold Ickes and
the New Republic's John Judis also ventured comparisons between the
1972 and 2008 Democratic nominees.
And not without reason: Obama's primary base of students, blacks, and
cultural leftists bore a striking resemblance to the McGovern
coalition of yesteryear. But for conservative Republicans, the
demographic parallels were merely lagniappesince for them every
Democratic leader, no matter how Southern, how pro-war, how
middle-of-the-road, is really a McGovernite. Indeed, for nearly 40
years the conservative movement has defined itself in opposition to
the Democratic standard-bearer of 1972. Anti-McGovernism has come to
play for the Right the unifying role that anticommunism once played,
much to the detriment of older principles such as limited government,
fiscal continence, and prudence in foreign policy.
That Republicans prefer to run against McGovern no matter whom the
Democrats nominate is understandable enough. Nixon's victory against
the South Dakotan was a blowout of historic proportions. The Democrat
received just 37.5 percent of the popular vote to Nixon's 60.7
percent. The only electors McGovern won, besides those of
Massachusetts, came from Washington, D.C. Even Walter Mondale
performed better against Reagan in 1984. (Though not by much.) What's
more, McGovern's nomination confirmed, in fact and symbolically, the
hard Left's takeover of the Democratic Party and the shattering of
the New Deal coalition of Southern conservatives, blacks, and
working-class whites. The Republican playbook ever since has relied
on securing the South while making whatever inroads are possible
among blue-collar workersthe "hardhats" of the Nixon era, the Reagan
Democrats, and of course Joe the Plumber.
On the other side of the ledger are Democratic "elites" with a small
but radical base of "college-educated suburbanites, blacks, and
liberated women, in addition to young people," in the words of Why
the Democrats Are Blue author Mark Stricherz. McGovern, a minister's
son, a World War II combat veteranhe flew 35 B-24 missions over
enemy territory, earning the Distinguished Flying Crossand
scandal-free family man might have seemed an unlikely paladin for
hippies and feminists, even if, as George Will notes, he is one of
only two major-party presidential nominees to hold a Ph.D. (The other
was Woodrow Wilson.) But what drove the countercultural Left to this
unprepossessing South Dakotan was his unflinching opposition to the
Vietnam War. He voted against sending U.S. troops to Indochina as
early as 1963. In 1970, he sponsored an amendment with Republican
Mark Hatfield to bring home all U.S. troops from Vietnam within a
year. Quoting Edmund Burke"A conscientious man would be cautious how
he dealt in blood"he told his colleagues the day of the vote:
Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending
50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of
blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human
wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our
landyoung men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes.
… [W]e are responsible for those young men and their lives and their
hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will
some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive
carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.
Little more than a year later, he was running for president on a
platform of ending the war, slashing the military budget, reforming
the tax code, and offering Americans a federally guaranteed annual
income. (A bad idea, to be surebut not so different from Milton
Friedman's "negative income tax," a notion favored by Nixon.) To
conservatives like National Review publisher Bill Rusher, "His
original foreign policy was essentially a global bug-out, belatedly
modified to provide for the all-out defense of Israel." As McGovern
explained, "I don't like communism, but I don't think we have any
great obligation to save the world from it."
This was sharp break with the Cold War liberalism of Harry Truman,
John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. Yet the McGovern revolutionas
it seemednever remade the Left as thoroughly as the reaction against
him reshaped the Right. Famously, the most ardent supporters of
Washington Sen. Scoop Jackson, one of McGovern's many rivals for the
1972 nomination, deserted the party to become the original
neoconservatives. McGovern's victory, Irving Kristol recalled, "sent
us … a message that we were now off the liberal spectrum and that the
Democratic party no longer had room for the likes of us." Kristol and
company were anti-Left and anti-peacenik, but they never embraced the
old Goldwaterite goals of curbing the welfare state. They supplied
the Right with a new intelligentsia, in the process transforming conservatism.
The neoconservatives were chiefs without braves. But the McGovern
revolution also gave Republicans a new grassroots base. In '72,
Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott (R-Tenn.) described McGovern as the
"triple-A candidateacid, amnesty, and abortion." The "culture war"
had begun before that. Until McGovern, however, that war had been
fought within the Democratic Partyliterally, in the case of the
bloody clashes between Mayor Daley's police and New Left protestors
at the 1968 Chicago convention. McGovern's nomination finally made
the culture war a partisan issue, which Republican activists such as
Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie were quick to capitalize upon.
Their efforts to mobilize evangelicals for the culture war gave rise
to the modern Religious Right. Weyrich, in fact, inadvertently named
what became the most prominent Christian conservative group when he
told a Lynchburg-based televangelist, "Out there is what one might
call a moral majority."
Rev. Jerry Falwell liked the ring of that. His Moral Majority was by
no means the only grassroots organization Weyrich, Viguerie, and
their allies had a hand in creating, however. Another, the National
Conservative Political Action Committee, took aim at liberal senators
and congressmen from conservative districts. One of the first scalps
NCPAC collected in November 1980 was that of George McGovern.
At first, the elite neoconservatives and the grassroots New Right had
little in common with one another or with the older Goldwaterite
conservatives. Irving Kristol acknowledged as much in a 1995 essay,
"America's 'Exceptional Conservatism,'" which contrasted the
"antisocialist, anti-Communist, antistatist" conservatives of old
with the neoconservatives and Religious Right. All were
anticommunist, but anticommunism was no longer the binding force that
it had been at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s.
Anti-McGovernism, however, would do the trick. The politics of sex,
drugs, and warif not exactly acid, amnesty, and abortionwould
define the new conservatism.
The Republican establishment was slow to adopt these issues. Gerald
Ford and George H.W. Bush had no passion for them. Even Ronald Reagan
paid more lip service than fealty to the new priorities of the Right:
he had come of age with an earlier anticommunist and libertarian
brand of conservatism. But in the 1990s, Republicans embraced
anti-McGovernism with ardor. Bill Clinton, an unremarkable Southern
governor and keen militarist, looked to the 1990s Right like another
McGovern. "From a chicken in every pot," joked right-wing radio
talkers, "to a chicken on pot"a reference to Clinton's draft-dodging
and drug-using. Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich tagged
administration officials "countercultural McGoverniks."
There were McGoverniks aplenty in the Clinton White House, including
the president himself, who in his law-school days had campaigned for
McGovern in Texas. And the Clintonites were every bit as beholden to
the social Left as their critics maintainedas shown by the
president's commitment to abortion rights and early attempt to end
the ban on homosexuals serving in the military. Yet the Republicans'
anti-McGovernite rhetoric disguised a retrenchment on the Right: with
the influx of neoconservative intellectuals, official conservatism
began honoring pre-McGovern liberal Democrats as heroes. In 1956,
National Review considered Republican Dwight Eisenhower
insufficiently conservative to merit endorsement. By 2008, National
Review Online thought Harry S. Truman a model for George W. Bushand
meant that as a compliment. "Hopeful conservatives keep comparing
Bush to Truman," wrote Fred Schwartz, the magazine's deputy managing editor.
If modern DemocratsZell Miller and Joseph Lieberman asidewere
countercultural McGoverniks, old liberals like Franklin Roosevelt,
Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy were now conservatives. And if this
adjustment entailed conservatives making peace with the welfare state
and Cold War liberalism, so much the better for right-wing social
democrats like Irving Kristol, whose "chosen enemy," he avowed, "was
contemporary [McGovern-style] liberalism, not socialism or statism."
As for the social conservatives who flocked to the GOP, Kristol noted
that economics and limited government were not their foremost
concerns. They came to the conservative movement innocent of
economics and political philosophyand untutored in foreign policy as
well. "Only neoconservatives can really speak to them in the language
of moral values," Kristol insisted.
Throughout the 1990s, McGovern remained a touchstone for the culture
war. After 9/11, he again became a symbol in a real war. "The Dems
are still the party of George McGovern, and for them it's still
1968," Jed Babbin wrote in a 2003 column about the Iraq War. Notably,
although McGovern was not the most prominent antiwar Democrat in
'68that distinction belonged to Minnesota Sen. Eugene
McCarthyBabbin still chose him as the benchmark of the antiwar Left.
McCarthy, after all, had fallen short of his party's nomination and
could hardly serve as synecdoche for all Democrats.
For 30 years, Republicans, neoconservatives, and liberal hawks have
cultivated the myth of the McGovern Party: weak on defense,
ineluctably opposed to Middle American values, the party of peaceniks
and perverts. Not only has this narrative distorted the Right by
allowing anyone starboard of McGovern to set himself up as a
conservative, it has also led Republicans to misunderstand their
enemy. Paula and Monica notwithstanding, Bill Clinton was less
interested in sex than in NAFTA-style managed trade. And far from
being a peacenik, Clinton led the country into military actions in
Haiti, Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Serbia, and a
plethora of other places. Clinton was no more a McGovern-style
left-winger than George W. Bush was a Goldwater-style right-winger.
The Democrats have not nominated a McGovernite since McGovern
himself. The senator's understudy and 1972 campaign manager, Gary
Hart, lost the 1984 nomination to Hubert Humphrey's protégé, Walter
Mondale. Left-wingers such as Jerry Brown and Dennis Kucinich have
not fared as well in today's Democratic Party as Eugene McCarthy did
in the Johnson-Humphrey party of '68. Both Jimmy Carter and Michael
Dukakis were, by the standards of their party, moderate governors.
Even John Kerry, a celebrity of the Vietnam-era antiwar movement,
voted for the Iraq War in the Senate and didn't dare run as a
McGovernite in 2004.
Though the party's social liberalsfeminists, abortion supporters,
and gay-rights activistshave indeed consolidated their power, they
often did so in alliance with the party's right wing: the
pro-business, Southern-accented Democratic Leadership Council. It was
a DLC-run party that denied antiabortion Gov. Robert Casey of
Pennsylvania a speaking slot at the 1992 Democratic convention.
McGovern, on the other hand, was the last Democratic presidential
nominee to select a pro-life running mate. (In fact, he chose two:
Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton, who withdrew from the ticket when his
history of psychiatric treatment came to light, and Peace Corps
founder Sargent Shriver. McGovern's own position was that abortion
was a matter properly left to the states.) While the social Left
worked out a modus vivendi with the DLC, the antiwar Left steadily
lost out to humanitarian interventionists. Madeleine Albright, not
George McGovern, remains the face of the Democratic Party's foreign policy.
All indications are that this won't change under Barack Obama, even
if his campaign had similarities to McGovern's. He ran on an
anti-Iraq War platform and inspired hope among many of the same
groups that McGovern did. And like the South Dakotan, he had trouble
with white working-class voters during the primariesindeed, both
McGovern and Obama won the Democratic nomination with less than a
majority of the votes cast in the primaries and caucuses. McGovern
received approximately 68,000 fewer votes than Hubert H. Humphrey;
Obama, by the widest possible count, received about 176,000 fewer
votes than Hillary Clinton. (Appropriately enough, the protracted
Democratic nominating battle of 2008 was itself a legacy of electoral
reforms McGovern had helped craft.) When John McCain added Miss
Middle AmericaAlaska Gov. Sarah Palinto his ticket, pundits Left
and Right for a time thought Obama's fate was sealed. The McGovern
coalition couldn't prevail in a rematch against Nixon's silent majority.
Yet it did. In the intervening decades, the McGovern coalition had
grown. And perhaps more importantly, Middle Americans faced with a
choice between the semicompetent socialism of the Left and the
spectacularly incompetent socialism of the Republican Right split
three waysbetween McCain, Obama, and staying home. Mideast war,
torture, and national bankruptcy turned out to be even less popular
than social liberalism.
If Republicans and liberal hawks were correct in calling Obama a new
McGovern, they only succeeded in proving how repellent most
Americans, including many conservatives, find today's GOP. The
trouble is, instead of the country getting George McGoverna
temperamental conservative, an anti-militarist, and a committed
decentralistwe're getting Barack Obama, who dreams of another New
Deal and picked Hillary Clinton as his chief diplomat. Somehow the
neoconservatives and liberal interventionists prevailed again.
George McGovern: Barack Obama Is a 'Second Lincoln'
By Justin Ewers
Posted December 23, 2008
Few people come as quickly to the defense of George McGovern as
McGovern himself. The antiwar senator from South Dakota lost to
Richard Nixon in a landslide in the 1972 presidential election, only
to see Nixon, caught up in the Watergate scandal, resign in disgrace.
For McGovern, thoughalong with many Democrats who followed himthe
damage was done, and the now retired politician has spent decades
defending the electability of antiwar liberals, insisting his
campaign was undone by dirty tricks and bad luck. In recent years,
McGovern, 86, hasn't relinquished the spotlight, condemning the war
in Iraq and declaring Barack Obama, whom he endorsed after initially
supporting Hillary Clinton, a "second Abraham Lincoln." McGovern,
author of Abraham Lincoln, a short biography of the Civil War
president published this week, talked with U.S. News about political
history, corruption, and his expectations for Obama. Excerpts:
You've written a biography of Lincoln at the same time the next
president is modeling his inauguration after Honest Abe. Coincidence?
It is a coincidence, but a happy one. Lincoln was not only our
greatest president but one of our continuing great treasures. He has
not only inspired Barack Obama but multitudes of other Americans.
You've called Obama "a second Lincoln," but you originally supported
Hillary Clinton for president. What made you change your mind?
I didn't know Senator Obama when he announced for president. I hadn't
even met him. I knew Hillary going back to my '72 campaign. But as I
saw that campaign unwind, I realized that Barack Obama may well be
the man of the hour. It also became clear before I left Hillary that
she couldn't win the nomination even if she won all the remaining primaries.
Why do you consider Obama another Lincoln?
I think he is a healing figure and yet hasn't surrendered his
convictions. I think he is very careful not to come across as a
radical. He tries to appeal to common sense, and he is willing to
make compromises. I also think that both Lincoln and Barack have a
deep and abiding faith in our founding ideals.
It's clear in your book that you admire Lincoln not just for his
speeches but for his ability to play political hardball. Do you see
that in Obama?
Yes, I do. I think he had the best organized, most brilliantly
conceived presidential campaign we may ever have had. If I do say it,
mine was in that same category. I don't think we made a mistake in
the year and a half leading up to winning that nomination. After
that, we ran into all kinds of difficulty.
Your vice presidential pick in 1972, Thomas Eagleton, admitted he had
been hospitalized for nervous exhaustion and had undergone
Yes, the Eagleton matter took the momentum out of our campaign. It
would have been an uphill fight all the way, but to have a blow like
that come on the first thing I did after I was nominated, which was
to pick a running mate, we never recovered from that.
Did you see shades of Eagleton in John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin
as a running mate?
No, because I think John McCain knew what he was getting when he
picked Sarah Palin.
You mean you think she was thoroughly vetted?
No, I don't think she was thoroughly vetted, but I think they pretty
well knew that she wasn't concealing any scandals or any sicknesses
or anything like that. I do think in the long run the selection of
Sarah Palin hurt John McCain. At first, it was kind of a novelty, and
she's an attractive woman and carried off her acceptance speech at
the convention with certain fanfare. Then, it began to settle in on
the country, her lack of experience and knowledge, and she just
wasn't ready to take over the White House.
Do you think Obama really will change the tone in Washington ?
American political figures need to quit talking about red states and
blue states, as though we're in foreign countries. Since Reagan, it
has seemed like the solid South and much of the Midwest was locked up
by the Republicans. Barack won Virginia, he won Florida, he won North
Carolina, and he also won the states out West. I think he has erased
the red state-blue state way of judging American politics.
What do you make of Obama's "team of rivals"' approach to creating his cabinet?
I think it's wise. Franklin Roosevelt did that, too. His secretary of
war and his secretary of the Navy in World War II were both
Republicans. George Washington kept both Alexander Hamilton and
Thomas Jefferson in his cabinet. Lincoln didn't invent the team of
rivals, but he probably did it as well as any president we've had.
Have you spent much time with Obama?
Oh, yes. After I came out for him, he met with me in Sioux Falls,
S.D., and I had dinner with him. I've talked with him on the
telephone, and I've gotten to know him. He's a strong man. He's an
intelligent man, but he's also very adroit, as was Lincoln. I think
he'll get along fine with the kind of people we've seen so far in the cabinet.
Antiwar liberals haven't had much success running for president since
you lost in 1972. Does the election of Obama, who opposed the Iraq
war, feel like vindication?
Yes, people who opposed these unnecessary wars do feel somewhat
vindicated. Of course, I opposed the Iraq war, too. I was on
television two or three times warning against it. I've seen one poll
as high as 80 percent of Americans think we made a mistake going into
Iraq. I suppose we'd get similar poll results on whether Vietnam was
a sound policy.
Do you believe Obama will keep his campaign promise to pull American
troops out of Iraq ?
Bush thinks it's a big concession that we'll have them out by 2012. I
don't think any president can keep those troops in there until 2012.
Obama has said we've got to get out of Iraq, but the real problem is
Afghanistan. Well, you go from Iraq into Afghanistan, you're moving
from the frying pan into the fire.
Your campaign in 1972 was the victim of the Watergate break-in, the
pre - eminent example of political corruption at the highest level.
Do you think the era of 'dirty tricks' is over, or does the Illinois
corruption scandal show politics is as seedy as ever?
It's not over, but it's losing its effectiveness. I think people are
getting tired of it. I just think that's another thing that Barack
sensedthat people were fed up with the low level of politics, the
intense partisanship, and the continuous warfare in the Senate and
elsewhere. I think there is certain weariness about that.
How will you feel when President Bush steps down in January?
I don't have any personal malice toward Bush. I wish him well. I've
talked to him on a couple of occasions. He's a congenial, likable
guy. I always admired his father, and I hope things will go well for
him. I don't think Bush is a bad man. I just think he was mistaken in
so many of the judgments he made as president. But I wouldn't throw a
shoe at him.