There was a definite irony in the death of George McGovern on the eve of the last presidential debate last weekend. Just as Mitt Romney was about to unveil himself as a faux-peace candidate, while Barack Obama insisted on sounding like a more muscular version of George W. Bush, McGovern’s obituaries were reminding Americans of just how radical his views were.
McGovern was the last true radical to run for the presidency. Say what you will about Ronald Reagan, but his candidacy was not based on a radical agenda for the country. Whether he sought to impose one once elected is another matter. But as a candidate, Reagan was first and foremost a politician who knew how to get elected.
Thus, Reagan’s campaign in 1980 focused on the ineptitude of the Carter presidency. He effectively hid his far-right worldview in favor of stressing the failures of the incumbent. And, to reassure an uncertain electorate about his supposed hawkish views on military action, he presented himself as a centrist on foreign policy, one who would speak loudly but rarely wield a big stick. The voters judged him “safe,” and he won the election handily.
Reagan, then, was no Barry Goldwater, who had led the conservative charge in his 1964 presidential campaign. Goldwater didn’t try to hide his staunchly conservative views, especially on foreign policy, where he espoused the use of “tactical” nuclear weapons in Viet Nam. Goldwater lost decisively to Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson then promoted and presided over the last truly liberal presidential administration (discounting his prosecution of the war in Viet Nam, which became his albatross). In his single full term, he moved the country decisively to the left on social and economic policy. Under Johnson, Medicare, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the 1965 Voting Rights Law were all enacted, and, in combination with Earl Warren’s liberal-leaning Supreme Court, civil liberties and equal rights were advanced more than they had been at any other time in the country’s history.
But the country was in a different place in 1972 when George McGovern ran a true “peace” campaign to capture the Democratic nomination for president. McGovern was a son of a Methodist preacher from a small town in South Dakota. He had been a U.S. Senator for nine years when he declared his candidacy in 1971.
At the time, the war in Viet Nam was shaking the fabric of the country, with protests on college campuses and in the streets of many cities disrupting lives at home almost as much as the war was destroying lives in Southeast Asia.
Richard Nixon was well into his “secret plan” to end the war, gradually drawing down American forces from its high of 550,000 troops over the course of a four-year “Vietnamization” program that was intended to leave the South Vietnamese military in charge of the fighting.
Along the way, however, he increased the level of combat operations throughout the region, at various times taking the war into neighboring Cambodia and Laos, extending bombing raids to Hanoi (with commensurate civilian casualties), and mining North Viet Nam’s principal harbor in Haiphong (thereby imposing a de facto economic blockade on the country).
McGovern had been a decorated World War II fighter pilot. He knew the horrors of war. He wasn’t an absolute pacifist, but he believed the war in Viet Nam was immoral and illegal, and he carried that message through the nominating primaries and caucuses, moving his party solidly to the left as he did. The Democrat’s platform in 1972 was as radical as any the country has ever seen. Among its provisions were calls for immediate withdrawal from Viet Nam, complete amnesty for war resisters (draft-dodgers), the abolition of the draft (a position ultimately adopted by Nixon), a guaranteed job for all Americans, a guaranteed family income well above the poverty line, and a 55% inheritance tax (scaled down from McGovern’s original proposal of a 100% tax on all inheritances).
That McGovern was soundly defeated (even more soundly than Goldwater had been eight years earlier) was not particularly surprising. Much as he tried to deny the charge, McGovern was clearly in favor of the kind of wealth “re-distribution” and foreign policy “appeasement” that has always been anathema to the view America (as measured by its voting populace) has of itself.
But what is impressive (in retrospect, at least) is how far to the right the country has moved in the forty years since McGovern’s presidential run. Ronald Reagan certainly gets much of the credit for that move. But so does Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and, yes, Barack Obama.
In succeeding presidential campaigns since the McGovern debacle, the country has seen Republican candidates move their party’s political philosophy so far to the right that it is unlikely that even a modern-day Barry Goldwater could get nominated. Until he rediscovered his centrist inclinations this month in the three debates, Mitt Romney was far more conservative than Goldwater ever was. (His views on abortion alone would so cast him.)
The Republican party of 1972 supported things that it would declare socialistic today. Richard Nixon, for example, imposed wage and price controls on the entire U.S. economy during his administration. Would any president, let alone a Republican president, dare to even suggest such a policy today?
And the Democrats have followed suit, with each nominee, especially those who actually got elected, tilting to the center. Jimmy Carter, hapless though he may have been once elected, was far to the right of McGovern, having been the Governor of Georgia. Bill Clinton was a true centrist, far to the right of, for example, Nelson Rockefeller (Nixon’s principal Republican opponent in the ’68 primaries).
And Barack Obama? Call him a socialist if you like. But George McGovern would scoff at the label.
George McGovern was the Dennis Kucinich of his day. But unlike Kucinich, who couldn’t even win his primary for his House seat, McGovern was his party’s presidential nominee. That fact says all you need to know about the state of America’s political identity as the country prepares to elect another president.