Democratic Underground  

Why Howard’s not George
July 15, 2003
By Mike McArdle

Editor's Note: Democratic Underground welcomes articles promoting individual Democratic candidates for political office. Publication of these articles does not imply endorsement of any candidate by the editors of Democratic Underground.

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 Nixon.

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 next year.

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 election.

Printer-friendly version
Tell a friend about this article Tell a friend about this article
Discuss this article
Democratic Underground Homepage