Ryan Cooper took note of the passing of George McGovern over the weekend. But as a 1972 precinct chairman for McGovern who also spent a lot of time over the years thinking about the legacy of that campaign, I wanted to add a few personal notes.
It’s hard to overstate how shocking the 1972 results were to a lot of Democrats, particularly impressionable young folk like I was at the time. The adjective most often used to describe McGovern as a person, then and right up until his death, was “decent.” That was never a term associated with Richard M. Nixon. After running a textbook nomination campaign that perfectly exploited the new primary-based system that he and his staff understood much better than their rivals, McGovern’s general election campaign was a disastrous comedy of errors, beginning, of course, with the hasty choice of a running-mate who had to be discarded almost immediately, a fine acceptance speech that virtually no one saw (it was delivered between 2:00 and 3:00 AM EDT), and then the serial abandonment or repudiation of the ticket by a vast number of Democratic elected officials and interest groups.
Nixon, by contrast, capped a first-term record of almost systematic betrayal of everything he’d promised (or seemed to promise) to do by cooking up a phony peace offensive, deliberately inflating the economy, and making systematic raids on Democratic constituency groups. And oh, yeah, he also instigated and then covered up the series of nefarious activities later known collectively as Watergate. Whereas McGovern could not buy a break, Nixon got nothing but breaks, most notably the sidelining by attempted assassination of George Wallace, whose 1968 vote went almost uniformly into Nixon’s 1972 column.
To add insult to injury, McGovern took the blame for the first and most dramatic election in which the collapse of the New Deal Coalition became fully manifest. Humphrey’s near-win in 1968 distracted attention from the fact that he won the lowest percentage of the popular vote of any major-party candidate since Alf Landon. In 1976 Jimmy Carter disguised the structural trends by winning the South and southern-inflected voters in border states and the midwest–voters who, by and large (aside from the Deep South regional loyalists who stayed with Carter in 1980), weren’t going to vote Democratic in a presidential election again. When Fritz Mondale got blown out in 1984, it represented the fourth time in five cycles that the Democratic candidate won less than 43% of the popular vote nationally. Yet this era of defeat is very often associated with McGovern alone.
McGovern’s death has brought many reminders that even as he lost big chunks of the Democratic coalition in 1972, he attracted elements of a new coalition that would eventually help bring Democrats back to parity and occasional majority status decades later. It was no accident that his 1972 campaign manager, Gary Hart, challenged the old interest-and-identity-group foundation of the party in 1984, coming remarkably close to winning on a message that was basically the idea of new ideas. And for all the conventional analysis of the Democratic Party on left-center ideological lines, the Clintonian movement in the party owed a lot in its strategic thinking and self-conscious independence from what it called The Groups to the original McGovern campaign. And the connections were personal: Bill and Hillary Clinton, after all, more or less ran McGovern’s general election campaign in Texas, and most of the nascent New Democrat types in the 1990s had been Hart supporters in 1984.
So McGovern’s political legacy is a bit more complicated than the usual tale of the honest but feckless progressive who proved himself too good for the American people. And it’s not quite right to say, as some have, that McGovern was fully vindicated by the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation. After the Carter interregnum, Nixon’s political and policy legacy continued to dominate the White House for three more terms, and certainly the Imperial Presidency and the temptation to exhibit it through irresponsible military action that McGovern protested in 1972 are as strong as ever today, and not just in the GOP.
The “too good to be president” meme is also unfortunate in a different sense: it fed an undercurrent of feeling among progressives identifying political strength with aggressiveness as thoroughly as conservatives identify national strength with militarism. McGovern and his campaign made plenty of mistakes, to be sure, but it’s hard to look back at 1972 and identify some moment when more viciousness and less decency would have made a positive difference.
In most respects, McGovern was simply in the wrong place (politically, not morally or substantively) at the wrong time, but in the end inspired more admiration than mockery, particularly among progressive baby boom generation activists who so often looked back at 1972 as the ultimate baptism of fire. May this good man and great patriot rest in peace.