A Tale of Two Elections

Goldwater and McGovern.jpg

After we had attended a panel discussion to help promote Heather Gautney's new book, Crashing the Party: From the Bernie Sanders Campaign to a Progressive Movement and to analyze the significance of Sander's 2016 effort, I remarked to friends that it was interesting to compare the very different responses of the Republicans and Democrats to two presidential campaigns that have gone down in history as disasters, those of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972. I had intended to write something from scratch about this but when I started my research, I came across a fairly recent article that covers the subject well, so I am going to share excerpts along with some of my own additional information and perspective.

The article, published in The New Republic in February, 2016 is, What the Democrats Still Don't Get About George McGovern, by Josh Mound, who holds a PhD in history and sociology from the University of Michigan (entire article can be found here: https://newrepublic.com/article/130737/democrats-still-dont-get-george-m...). Mound starts off by recounting something that will ring true for many of us:

For the past 40 years, whenever a Democratic presidential hopeful has given off the slightest whiff of leftish anti-establishmentarianism, party leaders and mainstream pundits have invoked McGovern’s name. In 2004, Howard Dean was the new McGovern. In 2008, Barack Obama became the new McGovern. This year, it’s Bernie Sanders’s turn.

For Mound, Democrats fear of "McGovernism" is misplaced. McGovern didn't lose because he was too far left but for the following reasons:

1) He was facing a popular incumbent presiding over a booming economy

2) He made a mistake that seriously hurt his campaign

3) He was actively opposed and attacked by powerful constituencies in his own party

Mound contrasts this with the response of the Republicans to Barry Goldwater's equally stunning defeat in '64, which he writes, "was, in many ways, a mirror image of McGovern’s defeat at the hands of Nixon eight years later." Mound continues:

Whereas the Democrats shifted away from McGovernism towards tepid centrism, Republicans ultimately embraced Goldwater’s radical conservatism, paving the way for Ronald Reagan’s eight Goldwater-esque years in the White House. Most importantly, the parties’ divergent responses to sweeping defeat at the ballot box explain a great deal about the state of American politics today, especially the Democrats’ inability to effectively counter either the expanding extremism of the GOP or the increasing economic inequality and persistent racism that Republicans’ Goldwater-tinged radicalism has facilitated.

McGovern and the '72 campaign deserve a much closer look than some of the myths that have grown up around them. McGovern declared his candidacy in January 1971. According to Mound, by August, Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder gave him scant 200-to-1 odds of securing the Democratic nomination. Heading into the election year, McGovern’s poll numbers sat in the single digits.

As Mound points out, McGovern and his advisers recognized early on that the South's shift to the Republicans, which began with Goldwater, was here to stay. Their strategy to deal with this was twofold. First, McGovern would "align himself with recent social movements to a degree no previous Democrat had contemplated." Second, he would woo poor and working-class whites in the North away from the likes of conservative Democrat George Wallace with "a populist pocketbook pitch that foregrounded issues of economic inequality and the political power of the wealthy."

Like Sanders in 2016, McGovern couldn't expect help from a lot of the more traditional Democratic Party interest groups and moneymen, so, his response was similar. The McGovern campaign tapped direct mail wizard, Morris Dees to create a mass fundraising campaign from small donors. The result was over 40,000 contributions, averaging less than $30 by February 1972.

As Mound reveals, to the surprise of nearly everyone outside of the McGovern campaign itself, the strategy worked. In confidential memos, the Nixon reelection campaign called the both the Wallace and McGovern efforts “the only two smart campaigns.” McGovern, in particular, worried Nixon’s advisers because his “class appeal” was “pinning the adjective ‘rich’ to Republicans.” McGovern had been “badly underestimated” and was “potentially very dangerous to the President,” the Nixon analysis concluded.

Unfortunately, the McGovern campaign began to falter almost immediately after he had secured the nomination. I'm going to go into a little more detail on this than Mound did because I think it's important. Most polls showed McGovern running well behind Nixon, except when he was paired with Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy but Kennedy refused to accept the VP spot. So, the search began for a Kennedy-like figure to balance the ticket: an urban Catholic with strong ties to organized labor and other working-to-lower middle-class constituencies.

After being turned down by several more high-profile Democrats, McGovern finally settled on Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri after some very minimal vetting. With Eagleton relatively unknown to the convention delegates, the balloting for the vice-presidential slot was chaotic and not completed until 1:40 am. This meant that McGovern and Eagelton weren't able to give their acceptance speeches until around 3:00 am, in an era before they could be reposted on Facebook and YouTube. Thus, any chance for a post-convention "bounce" was lost. Then, though Eagleton had assured McGovern he had no skeletons in his closet, it soon leaked that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy. After initially supporting Eagleton, McGovern ended up removing him from the ticket, which made him look both incompetent and cruel.

But, as Mound shows, perhaps the deepest damage to McGovern’s campaign came not from its own ineptitude, but from the candidate’s fellow Democrats. Early in the primaries, an adviser for Hubert Humphrey, one of McGovern’s main opponents for the nomination, promised, “We are going to show that McGovern is a radical, just like Goldwater was in 1964.”

Mound continues:

As McGovern barreled toward the nomination, leading Democrats’ attacks became more desperate. Anti-McGovern Democrats staged an “Anybody But McGovern” movement at the convention. When that failed, some pledged that they would not campaign for him and might even support Nixon. A Democrat even handed Republicans their best attack line: “The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot,” an unnamed Democratic senator told the press. Hugh Scott, the GOP’s Senate minority leader, transformed the quote into “the three A’s: Acid, Amnesty, and Abortion” and a golden political slur was born. (Ironically, the unnamed Democratic senator who had originated the line was none other than Eagleton, though McGovern didn’t know it at the time).

But despite all of this, the most important factor in the 1972 election was probably the condition of the U.S. economy, the popularity of President Nixon and the real and perceived successes of his administration. As Mound points out:

Nixon took any guesswork out of this by encouraging expansive fiscal and monetary policy. When polls showed that the public preferred McGovern on issues like inflation and taxes, Nixon shifted to the left. He took the unprecedented step of instituting wage-price controls to clamp down on inflation and promised to sock it to the rich and slash tax rates on the working class if reelected. “The essence of this is redistribution,” Nixon’s top domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman, told an astonished press. On foreign affairs, Nixon could justifiably claim that he was not only winding down the war in Vietnam, but also cooling off the Cold War, thanks to his famous trip to China [and the policy of Détente with the Soviet Union]. The Democrats could have resurrected FDR and Nixon would have trounced him in 1972.

The Republicans seem to be less traumatized by defeat than Democrats. After the 1964 blowout, Goldwater and "Goldwaterism" didn't become pejoratives. The Republicans allowed space for their conservative wing to have a real voice and nearly nominated Goldwaterite Ronald Reagan for president in 1976. They played a long game, waited for conditions to change, finally got Reagan elected in 1980 and took back the Senate as well in 1982. After another stinging defeat in 2008 that left both the White House and Congress in Democratic hands, Republicans didn't head for group therapy. Rather, they rapidly formed a plan to take over a majority of state legislatures and governorships in 2010 that would give them the power to redraw state legislative and congressional district lines. This has now created a tough obstacle for the Democrats to overcome in 2018. Rahm Emanuel, an archetypal, neo-liberal, "New Democrat" has said that, "winning is everything." But in the era of DLC, New Democrat, centrist domination, the party has lost an estimated 1,030 seats in state legislatures, governor's mansions and Congress as well as the presidency in 2016. If that's "winning," maybe it's time to reexamine history with an eye towards change.

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k9disc's picture

resonates well:

What’s more, the new members were antiwar, not necessarily anti-bank. “Our generation did not know the Depression,” then-Representative Paul Tsongas said. “The populism of the 1930s doesn’t really apply to the 1970s,” argued Pete Stark, a California member who launched his political career by affixing a giant peace sign onto the roof of the bank he owned.

In reality, while the Watergate Babies provided the numbers needed to eject him, it was actually Patman’s Banking Committee colleagues who orchestrated his ouster. For more than a decade, Patman had represented a Democratic political tradition stretching back to Thomas Jefferson, an alliance of the agrarian South and the West against Northeastern capital. For decades, Patman had sought to hold financial power in check, investigating corporate monopolies, high interest rates, the Federal Reserve, and big banks. And the banking allies on the committee had had enough of Patman’s hostility to Wall Street.

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“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” ~ Sun Tzu

Alligator Ed's picture

@k9disc intellectual bankruptcy.

Brandeis’s basic contention, built up over a lifetime of lawyering from the Gilded Age onward, was that big business and democracy were rivals. “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few,” he said, “but we can’t have both.”

I read about half of this article, discussing the Democratic party's erosion from champion of the people to protector of the elites. Using Wright Patman as a model of the 1930-40s party, we can trace the transition of the Dems to a fascistic institution that has abandoned its roots, more or less completely. Thus it isn't just the 3rd Way harmful nonsense which turned the tide of the party, it actually began through those whose ignorance of the real world made them blind to the true threats so evident today: financialization of the economy and disregard for the ordinary citizens--those now disregarded people for which this nation was allegedly constituted.

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Radical Reformer's picture

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Radical Reformer's picture

@k9disc Yes, the Atlantic article is excellent, a must read as well. I've often discussed and shared it with friends.

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Wink's picture

Was the first election I voted in (not old enough before that), (absentee from Germany, which I'm sure never got counted), and I was certain McGovern would win. After all, how could anyone vote for the asshole prez that didn't end a war that had been going on for 7, 8 years at that point? Well, it turned out a lot of asshole voters apparently didn't give a fuck about the war.

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the little things you can do are more valuable than the giant things you can't! - @thanatokephaloides. On Twitter @wink1radio. (-2.1) All about building progressive media.

Radical Reformer's picture

@Wink Sadly, this is still the case today, with U.S. troops still fighting or "advising" all over the world, in places many Americans don't even realize. As another author who's name escapes me has noted, Americans have been lucky that all of our wars since the 20th have been against enemies that lacked the capacity to bring the horrors of war back to us. Getting rid of the draft made it even easier for many Americans to not give a fuck about the many wars our country has been involved in since Vietnam.

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@Radical Reformer

Although I kinda suspect that this was more planning than luck.

...As another author who's name escapes me has noted, Americans have been lucky that all of our wars since the 20th have been against enemies that lacked the capacity to bring the horrors of war back to us. ...

Started by attacking/'regime changing' to steal the resources of smaller/poorer countries deemed unable to defend themselves against the US military might in order to increase the wealth and power of The Right People; begin the country-by-country weakening process of The War On The World; set up permanent military bases - at US public expense and in the name of 'humanitarianism' and 'democracy' - all over the world, maintained as permanent launching stages for future attacks elsewhere, and continue the process until the world's largest military is deemed by the planners to be enough to conquer the world for their personal technologically enhanced micromanagement and exclusive profit. That's the plan, at any rate.

Our luck is that they haven't quite got there yet, although they are frantically working on it.

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Psychopathy is not a political position, whether labeled 'conservatism', 'centrism' or 'left'.

A tin labeled 'coffee' may be a can of worms or pathology identified by a lack of empathy/willingness to harm others to achieve personal desires.

Radical Reformer's picture

@Ellen North "Lucky" was just a figure of speech. I agree with you, though recently, it does seem like the American ruling class is a lot more willing to risk another great power conflict that could prove very unpredictable and dangerous, even on the US's "home soil."

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mimi's picture

overall are doing more damage than good on both sides of the two party system. If the US could just have a different electoral system and campaign finance regulations.. one really could dream of making one's home here. But with friends like these among those who are supposedly your friends, you don't need enemies.

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Love is all we have to give.

for McGovern in '72, and the neighborhoods I was canvassing were out-of-work white steel workers, whom the Republicans and the mainstream media had christened the Silent Majority. The reason they were described as silent was that they didn't show up in the polls, but the Republicans assured us they were solidly behind Nixon. So those of us who were canvassing such neighborhoods were counseled to leave our literature, but not to expect positive reactions.

Instead, what I found was that, yes, they were largely white males in their 30's and 40's, and yes, they were home, because they were laid off steel workers, but that they HATED Nixon. Anybody But Nixon was their repeated refrain, and I began to hear it as a union meeting statement. And hate was their word, not mine.

On election day, I went to the polling place to write down names of people who hadn't voted, in order to call them and offer a ride to the polls. As I was waiting for a chance to read the register, one of the 3 little old ladies who were the poll workers said, "You're the Democratic reader, right?" I said yes, and she said, "We want to tell you something. We're all Republicans, and we think that's strange." I knew what they meant because there were only about 4 registered Republicans in that whole district.

Months or weeks after the election our newspaper listed the results for each precinct, and I read the precinct I had canvassed, and it had a large turnout and had gone solidly for Nixon, overwhelmingly. In that moment, my whole understanding of our election system changed. It's not that I believed the result was wrong. It's that I suddenly realized how easy it would be to misrepresent the result.

If you think the war machine that would burn the flesh off of children with napalm would allow an anti-war WWII veteran to win that presidential election, you are kidding yourself. With all due respect, I believe the result of the 1972 election is very much in question, as the cabal that would lie to you about the Silent Majority would lie to you about everything.

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