George McGovern Redux: A Cautionary Tale For Bernie Democrats

He still has it: the button that says, “My First Vote: George McGovern.” It was 1972. My father was 18 and focused on only one issue, the Vietnam War. This was the first election after the voting age had been lowered to 18, and college students and young people were fired up about the progressive McGovern. They were passionate, idealistic and hopeful, all of those things that people are supposed to be as young adults.

The field in the Democratic primaries that year included Hubert Humphrey, George Wallace, Edmund Muskie, Shirley Chisholm and Henry “Scoop” Jackson. Reviewing the events of that year on Wikipedia, it all came back like a bad dream:

George McGovern, U.S. Senator of South Dakota

Civil rights champion Humphrey carrying the baggage of the Vietnam War and fighting over the delegate selection process at the convention.

Racist segregationist Wallace, writing a script for vulgar, hateful campaigns that Donald Trump seems to be following today.

Muskie, a victim of Nixon’s “dirty tricks” group, that smeared both him and his wife.

Chisholm, the first African-American to run for the presidency.

Jackson, the quintessential Southern Democrat of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Helluva campaign. My father’s choice of McGovern was the result of rejecting anyone who ever had anything to do with the Vietnam War (Humphrey, even though by 1972 he had said the Vietnam War was a mistake) and eliminating anyone who didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning (Chisholm). And, as I said above, my father was passionate about McGovern. And he was, above all, a really nice guy, a total contrast to Richard “the crook” Nixon.

McGovern lost big. It was a landslide victory for Nixon. Republicans painted McGovern as being weak on national defense because of his anti-war stance, at a time when Cold War America was still afraid of creeping communism. My father recalls getting back to his Augustana College dorm room that night and being brutally taunted by his Republican roommate. It was humiliating, humbling and horrible. He cried.

As time went on, and he went through all of the stages of grief, he developed a viewpoint of presidential politics that he still holds today: leftist progressive candidates that run primarily on one issue don’t win presidential elections. He loves them dearly. They pull at his heartstrings. They are earnest and passionate. They don’t win the presidency. Yes, they win Congressional seats in some states. Yes, they get elected as mayors and governor in some states. No, they don’t get elected president.

So, here we are 44 years later. We have the Humphrey-like candidate in Hillary Clinton, the candidate who has fought for women’s and children’s rights her whole life, but who also supported the Iraq War — and regrets it. We had the Chisholm-like candidate in Martin O’Malley, who said great things but didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. And we have the McGovern-like candidate in Bernie Sanders, the self-described Socialist who invokes passion among young people and is primarily running on the issue of economic inequality.

My father likes Bernie a lot. He loves his message about leveling the economic playing field for all Americans. He agrees that post-secondary education and training should be free or very cheap for young people. He even thinks we should work towards universal healthcare — someday. Bernie Sanders seems like a very nice guy. But if the Republicans somehow manage to nominate a somewhat normal, not-too-crazy candidate for president, Bernie will lose.

Of course “normal, not-too-crazy Republican candidate” is almost an oxymoron these days. And if the Republicans run someone who is further to the right than Bernie is to the left, I think Bernie could win. But I guarantee you, whichever Republican gets the nomination will moderate their tone and message in a general election so as not to scare off independents. Think Romney and W. Bush. Even Donald Trump, in between his racist diatribes and boasts about shooting people in the middle of Park Avenue without upsetting his base, has already begun talking about having to compromise in order to get things done in Washington. If Trump gets the nomination, he will moderate his tone, counting on the short attention spans of American voters in order to pull it off.

Bernie is not as cold and calculating as that. As much as I think Republicans will say anything to get elected, I believe that Bernie will honestly keep saying what he’s been saying. He will not run to the middle. He will continue to talk about universal health care, raising taxes to pay for it and free college for everyone. And he will lose, just as George McGovern lost in 1972.

Which leads us to the Humphrey-like candidate. As the years have passed by, my father has come to the conclusion that Hubert Humphrey was generally a good person who got swept up in the Vietnam War. He’s learned more about his battles for civil rights and the environment. George McGovern would have made a good president, certainly an incredibly much better president than Nixon. Who knows, he might have even had a shot at beating Nixon. It’s difficult to beat an incumbent president, no matter how incompetent and/or devious he is. Think W. I certainly think, lo these many years later, that he would have had a much better chance at beating Nixon than McGovern ever had.

Hillary Clinton has fought for women and children for decades, but is still being questioned about her support of the Iraq War and her connections to rich people. People ask questions because of all of the things she has been accused of even though the accusations were usually baseless. It should be noted that it has largely been Republicans who have been doing not only the accusing, but are quite willing to say she shouldn’t be running for president, of all of those things that she hasn’t been tried and convicted for. A lot of people have drunk that Kool-Aid, even some Democrats. Yes, she has her flaws just as we all do. The only difference is that hers have been under a microscope for 25 years.

I do fear sometimes that the Republicans will do to her what they have done to President Obama: lie about what he has done/not done, refuse to work with him, and then say that it’s his fault. But don’t for a minute think that they won’t do this to Bernie Sanders if he is the nominee. He will be painted as the weak-on-terror candidate, at a time when fears about terrorism are running hot. He will be painted as the “raise your taxes” candidate, at a time when people’s incomes are stagnant. And they will smear and denigrate him.

It started with Nixon’s “dirty tricks” strategy, and the Republicans have been doing it ever since. Nice guy Bernie will get the full-blown “Rovian” treatment, as will any Democratic candidate. Remember, this is the party that turned honorable Vietnam War veteran John Kerry into a Swift boating victim. This is the party that STILL sees President Obama as a Muslim Kenyan, not eligible to even sit in the Oval Office. They will do the same to Bernie. Terrorist-coddling, tax-raising socialist.

Anyone who thinks Sanders is competitive in a General election is living in a fantasy world. When the conservative smear machine cranks up and kicks into high gear, Bernie will be eviscerated, turned into an aging cartoon Commie, a flip-flopping America-hater, a 60s holdover writing bizarre essays about free sex and child rape fantasies, a non-Democrat Democrat whose embrace of the NRA undermines his claims to consistency and purity, a politician who voted against the Amber Alert system, a draft dodger, and a man who thinks women’s rights are a distraction.

Hillary Clinton calls herself a “pragmatic progressive.” Yes, I believe her. Someone who has consistently fought for women, families and children for as long as she has must have a progressive heart beating in her. She is smart. She is well-versed in multiple issues. She will make an infinitely better president than any Republican. She is a world class debater. Period. Has her willingness to modify her message, depending on the audience, gotten her into trouble at times? Yes. Were people happy with her vote for the Iraq War? No. But name one elected official who hasn’t tried to explain an unpopular position without sounding a bit shifty on positions. Even Bernie Sanders is having trouble trying to explain his votes on various gun safety legislation. It just happens in politics.

As I visit with my father he said “Watching the Bernie phenomenon reminds me so much of the halcyon days of the McGovern campaign. He was such a good-hearted guy who just wanted peace. The two campaign appearances by him that I attended were passionate and joyful events. How could the rest of the American public NOT vote for this person? I mean, for crying out loud, he was running against Tricky Dick! How could…he lose that badly…”

Even though he wasn’t without blemish, Hubert Humphrey had a good heart and would have made a much better president than Nixon. Even though she is a blemished politician, Hillary Clinton has a good heart and will make a much better president that any Republican. There is nothing they can throw at her that hasn’t already been thrown. Yes, she has made compromises. Yes, she will moderate in a general election. But I believe she will govern as a liberal. And I believe she can win.

Later as the evening closes in, my father and I are still sitting on the porch sipping on coffee and watching the sunset. My father abruptly says “I don’t want to see the ghosts of McGovern in the Sanders campaign. I really don’t. But there are enough similarities that it frightens me. Can I reconcile that 18-year-old idealistic progressive with the 62-year-old realistic pragmatic progressive that now lurks inside of me? Trust me, I never again want to feel what I felt the night McGovern lost, and I fear that it will be deja vu all over again if Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee for president. This time, I think I’ll let the pragmatic progressive in me cast my vote. Maybe she can win…”