The latest line of campaign analysis are comparisons of Obama’s candidacy to that of George McGovern in 1972. Obama can’t win the white blue-collar vote, the argument goes, regardless of how many gutter balls he throws; his appeal is too middle and upper class, on the “wine track” and not the “beer track;” and he has left behind that apocryphal “mainstream”, for a left-meandering tributary on the way to capsizing in the rapids.
Every four years pundits drag out the specter of McGovern to haunt Democrats, much as Republicans are analogized to Herbert Hoover, and compromising diplomats to the overly-invoked shades of Neville Chamberlain. Whether or not the current application of the McGovern analogy is deserved (I think not) it is worth taking a new look at the McGovern campaign, a prospect aided by Bruce Miroff’s recent study, Liberal’s Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party (Kansas, 2007.)
A few points. The Democratic Party in 1972 was a very different creature than the party of 2008. It encompassed a far wider ideological spectrum; some old-line southern Democrats, nascent neocons hovering around Scoop Jackson and other dyed in the wool Cold warriors, along with liberals and new leftists who were (at least) as left as what is considered acceptable within the party today. It is not surprising that the factions could not get along. The primaries had been bitter, with Humphrey, angry at the forces in the party that had denied him his ultimate prize in 1968, and McGovern as the major sparrers. (Humphrey hated McGovern, and called Nixon in the summer of 1972 to tell him that though party proprieties forced him to publicly endorse McGovern, in his heart Nixon was the one.)
The convention was profoundly bitter, with rules fights, especially over the seating of the California delegation, won by the McGovern forces by only a handful of votes, delaying all other party business, which was why McGovern was only able to give his acceptance speech well after prime time. The 1972 Democratic convention was one of the reasons that both parties soon moved to conventions at which no decisions were actually made.
The McGovern forces made some serious mistakes, of which by the most important was the selection of Thomas Eagleton as a running mate, with just an hour of vetting beforehand, in part because the campaign had been so bitter than until the actual convention all thoughts of McGovern’s senior staff had been fixed on winning the nomination, and the VP selection, as it had generally been was left as a last minute afterthought, and this too would never happen again. But even after the convention, the Democrats did not unite around McGovern. Humphrey offered a tepid endorsement, and most of organized labor, led by the ineffably grouchy and reactionary George Meany, didn’t even do that. McGovern was further hurt by bad breaks out of his control. (If George Wallace had stayed in the race, he would have definitely cut into Nixon’s margins.)
So what are the analogies to 2008? One thing that seems safe to conclude is that there has not been, since 1972, an insurgent movement within the Democratic Party with the excitement of Obama’s campaign this year. And it is worth remembering what McGovern won in 1972; forever changing the Democratic party with new roles and visibility for women and racial and sexual minorities within the party. These trends have finally come full circle, and it is difficult to imagine the Democratic Party of 2008, with its black and female leading candidates, without the reforms wrought by the McGovernites.
In many ways the auspices are positive. The Democratic Party is far more unified ideologically than it was in 1972; differences over Iraq are a pale comparison to the bitter Cold War/anti-Cold War debates that split the party in those days, and one hopes that whatever happens, Democrats will be able to unite behind the party’s eventual choice. But if the bitter convention of 1972 demonstrates anything, it is that the Democrats are fully capable, if they are dominated by anger and hurt feelings, to pull their party apart. They can lose and lose badly. Every faction and segment of the Democratic Party in 1972 contributed to debacle that November debacle, and not just the McGovernites. Let us hope this time around, unlike 1972, and unlike 2000 and 2004, the Democrats can share more than blame.