Anti-Bernie Smear #24: “Bernie is too far Left; he can’t win the general election — he will be another McGovern”
People who claim that Bernie is “too far Left” are mired in a false narrative that the Democratic Party itself has been fostering for decades in order to suppress and thwart Progressives.
We’ve all heard this argument many times and in many different ways. “We can’t go too far to the Left because then we will lose the swing states and the swing voters, and [INSERT REPUBLICAN] will win. It will be another landslide disaster like we had with George McGovern in 1972.”
The story of the McGovern loss is one that still dominates the debate among Democrats. Similar to the story of the “spoiler effect” of Ralph Nader in 2000, the fable of the McGovern debacle was created by the Democratic Elites and it has been nurtured and promoted by the Democratic Establishment to the point where it has become a matter of canon, a cautionary tale that cannot be questioned.
But this narrative is not based on the actual facts.
That was Then, This is Now
Firstly, we need to look at the very different circumstances that obtained in 1972. Unlike Trump in 2020, Richard Nixon in 1972 had a very high approval rating of well over 60%. The country was still at war in Vietnam, but Nixon and Kissinger were having talks with the North Vietnamese that they promised would deliver “peace with honor.” This argument, combined with generally high approval ratings, made Nixon a formidable foe.
Secondly, the stakes did not seem to be as high as they are today. Nixon was nowhere near the divisive figure that Trump is. Nixon had actually enacted several progressive milestones in his first term: establishing OSHA, creating the Environmental Protection Agency, passing the first Clean Air Act and proposing a new healthcare system to cover poor and working families that is actually more progressive than today’s Affordable Care Act.
Indeed, Nixon was so progressive in his Presidency that McGovern was forced to center his candidacy on ending the Vietnam War by withdrawing immediately, a strategy which Republicans called “cut and run” and one which as mentioned above was blunted by Nixon’s own promises of an “honorable” peace. When Henry Kissinger delivered his “October surprise” by announcing that “peace is at hand” just 10 days before Americans went to the polls, that pretty much dealt a death blow to McGovern’s anti-war platform.
Why a Landslide?
Nixon won the 1972 election 1ith over 60.7% of the popular vote, winning every State except Massachusetts. This dramatic defeat, however, was only made possible by the Democratic Party Establishment, which worked overtime against McGovern to ensure that he was soundly and roundly defeated.
McGovern’s anti-war platform was blasted to pieces as Nixon rocketed to the top of the polls based on foreign affairs: the incumbent 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 regarding the domestic issues and the economy, as Joshua Mound wrote in The New Republic:
Any Democratic nominee was doomed in 1972. Modern election forecasting models based on variables like the state of the economy and the incumbent’s approval ratings make clear, in retrospect, that Nixon was destined to win in a landslide. Taking any guesswork out of the result, Nixon stoked the economy with expansive fiscal and monetary policy, and 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.
Remember: 1972 was the year of Watergate, and Nixonian “Dirty Tricks” were deployed with gusto throughout the campaign. These nefarious tactics also helped Nixon to get an edge on McGovern.
“Anyone but McGovern”
McGovern’s defeat was, then, more or less certain, but the scale of the defeat was helped by fellow Democrats. During the 1972 Primary campaign, 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.” There was even an “anyone but McGovern” movement at the Democratic Convention, led by the centrist Southerner, Jimmy Carter.
“Acid, Amnesty and Abortion”
McGovern and his supporters were immediately condemned and portrayed as hippies and radical Leftists, not just by Republicans, but also by the Democratic Establishment. As Mound writes in The New Republic:
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.
The Superdelegate system had not yet been created, so there was little that the Party Elites could do to thwart the will of the base when it came to delegate counting at the convention. Once the “Anyone But McGovern” movement failed, however, things proceeded to get even more slimy.
“Democrats for Nixon”
John Connally was a powerful Democrat, a former ex-Governor of Texas who played kingmaker on both sides of the aisle. He had helped Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower get elected, and he had helped LBJ as well. But he was, at heart, a conservative, and so he formed “Democrats for Nixon“, an organization funded by Republicans but one with prominent pro-military war-hawk Democrats at its head, including several Democratic Governors and the Mayors of cities such as Miami, Boston and Nashville. Democrats for Nixon even ran a series of ads portraying McGovern as dangerous for wanting to cut military spending.
It was after the 1972 campaign that the Democrats decided to establish the Superdelegate system to ensure that the Party apparatchiks were able to select the candidate that they wanted, even if the base wanted someone else. They used McGovern’s loss to Nixon to justify this move, but in reality the Superdelegate system has nothing to do with electability. Superdelegates exist solely to ensure that no progressive, anti-war candidate can win the nomination, so as to spare the Party the embarrassment and expense of having to disown, disavow and sabotage their own candidate.
And it works! Thanks to the built-in, institutionalized corruption of the Superdelegate system, we have not had to seen the rise of groups and Super PACs such as Democrats for Dole, Democrats for Bush, Democrats for McCain, or Democrats for Romney.
Given the recent comments of people like Hillary Clinton, however, we may well see the emergence of a “Democrats for Trump” movement if Bernie becomes the nominee.
The Quick Response
To respond quickly and effectively to this smear, raise the following points:
- Nixon was one of the most popular incumbents in history during a time of war who ran on a progressive platform of peace and prosperity through massive government spending designed to capture working class voters and environmentalists;
- Nixon and the GOP were playing dirty in order to rig the race; the Watergate break in was just one operation where they got caught;
- Despite all of Nixon’s advantages, and his cheating, McGovern would have done much better at the polls if the Democratic Party had supported him instead of denying him support and financing and even running against him openly;
- When they say that Bernie will be another McGovern are they actually threatening to form “Democrats for Trump” in order to help defeat their own candidate, like they did in 1972?