Howard’s not George
By Mike McArdle
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Thirty-one years ago a Presidential candidate from a small
state made his opposition to a war the centerpiece of his
campaign against a incumbent President. And although the incumbent
had won the White House in an extremely close election in
1968 he clobbered the anti-war candidate winning 49 states.
The enormity of George McGovern’s defeat has loomed over
the Democratic Party since that November. For years Republicans
used the word “McGovernism” to describe Democrats as a party
controlled by dangerous leftists out of touch with mainstream
America. In the ensuing decades the party has elected only
two Presidents, both Southern centrists. Last fall, when many
Democrats voted for a war that it’s almost certain that none
of them would have initiated and many had doubts about it
may well have been the fear of being branded a McGovernite
that finally prodded them to vote yes.
The specter of George McGovern is being raised again but
now it is Democrats who are raising it because a Presidential
candidate from a small state is again making opposition to
a war the centerpiece of his campaign. Howard Dean, it is
said by some, is pulling the party dangerously to the left
and will doom the party to a McGovernesque disaster if he
is nominated next year. But those people are wrong. It wasn’t
McGovern’s opposition to the war that caused the landslide
– the factors that caused McGovern to lose so badly are not
likely plague Dean if he becomes the nominee.
There are several reasons why this is true.
1) McGovern alienated significant portions of the Democratic
base. “Rallying the base” is usually not the way to win
elections because elections are mostly won by garnering the
votes of swing voters who decide who to vote for by looking
at sound bites and have only a cursory knowledge of the issues.
Eroding your base, however, is a certain way to lose an election.
Trade unions and big city machines were critical to the success
of any Democrat then. The AFL-CIO, perceiving McGovern as
the candidate of shaggy-haired, elitist war protestors, denied
McGovern it’s endorsement depriving his campaign of a considerable
amount of money and a then-crucial Democratic constituency.
The Daly machine in Chicago gave McGovern only the most grudging
support after their slate of delegates was rejected at the
convention and the Democratic mayor of Philadelphia endorsed
Dean, on the other hand, does not appear likely to turn away
any important Democratic constituency. He may not be everyone’s
first choice but it’s hard to imagine an important group of
Democrats turning to Bush if he’s the nominee.
2) McGovern survived a contentious and damaging convention.
The political convention has become a TV miniseries, a week
long well scripted commercial for the party and its nominee.
McGovern arrived at his convention with his nomination probable
but not certain. A last minute attempt to deprive him of almost
half his California delegates and maybe the nomination had
to be beaten back. In fact the convention became so bogged
down in partisan disputes that McGovern didn’t even give his
acceptance speech until the early morning hours when almost
no one got to see it. The party had not put its best foot
forward and as a result McGovern’s convention may have been
the only one in history in which the candidate was further
behind in the polls when it ended. It is almost inconceivable
that Dean or any nominee will have to endure a similar fate
3) The Eagleton Disaster. McGovern’s choice for a
running mate was Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. Shortly
after the convention it was revealed that he had been hospitalized
several times for nervous exhaustion and had been treated
for depression with electro-shock therapy. McGovern handled
the situation as badly as it can be handled, first standing
by Eagleton and then a few days later letting the press know
that he wanted Eagleton to step down. It made McGovern look
indecisive and the ensuing search for a new running mate during
which McGovern was turned down by numerous prominent Democrats
made the campaign look ridiculous. It was a death march from
that time onward.
Partly as a result of the Eagleton situation Vice Presidential
candidates are now so thoroughly investigated before they
are selected that there will never be another running mate
with that big a skeleton in his closet.
4) McGovern was seen as a cultural threat. As divided
as American society may sometimes seem today it is one big
happy family compared to the way it was in the late 60’s and
early ‘70s. Ironically McGovern himself was a soft-spoken
hero of World War II but his support of abortion rights, amnesty
for draft evaders and the decriminalization of marijuana made
him appear to be the candidate of hippies and radicals. Although
the McGovernites eventually won the culture war they were
seen by significant segments of the population as an assault
on the American way of life.
Deans and most of his supporters tend to be upper middle
class, accomplished professionals, hardly a group that threatens
anyone. He’s probably going to have to hone his skills in
relating to the people who attend NASCAR events but they aren’t
going to automatically tune him out the way they did McGovern.
There is nothing in the Dean vision of America that would
drastically change the direction of American society.
Dean may yet prove to be poor campaigner. He’s shown a tendency
to shot from the hip that has caused him to have to apologize
to the other candidates on a few occasions but if he’s good
enough to make it through the primaries there is no reason
to expect a disaster like the one in 1972. Howard Dean is
not George McGovern.
And although that’s good for Deans election prospects it’s
also a shame. As someone who spent that Fall of 1972 stuffing
envelopes, putting up campaign posters and driving around
carloads of canvassers at a McGovern office in Pennsylvania
I’d like to think that in a perfect world Democrats might
be looking for candidates who were more, not less, like George
McGovern, who despite his poor campaign, bad luck and paltry
total of electoral votes was and is a great man. The time
was not right for him but history will note that America had
a lot less to fear from him than from the man who won that