21 October 2012
George McGovern (1922-2012)
The Democratic candidate for President in 1972 and a landslide loser to Richard Nixon at least had the satisfaction of outliving his usefulness to the Republican party. For a generation after his run, "McGovern Democrat" was a label applied to candidates whom Republicans wanted to appear to liberal in domestic affairs and too defeatist in foreign affairs. From the centrist perspective, "McGovern Democrats" were at the opposite extreme from Goldwater Republicans, but McGovern himself was more creature than creator of a movement, compared to Goldwater. The Senator from South Dakota benefited from party rules changes that gave more clout to youth and minorities, the presumed constituents of McGovern Democracy, but McGovern himself was no fanatic ideologue and left no long term stamp on his party, as Goldwater did. To say the least, McGovern doesn't figure today in Republican demonology the way Goldwater continues to for Democrats. If people remembered McGovern before reading of his entry into hospice last week and his death today, it was for no more than his wish to speed our withdrawal from Vietnam, an objective few in either party object to in retrospect today. The defeated Democrat has been reappraised favorably, if not apologetically, by the post-Cold War, anti-interventionists at the American Conservative magazine, and I suspect that he will pass more admired than condemned across the board, even without appearing to recant any old views or surprise his enemies, as Goldwater did by showing a tolerant libertarian streak late in life. Posterity can't help but encourage some buyers' remorse among the multitudes who voted Nixon back while the Watergate scandal simmered beneath the surface, and common sense has most likely shown that McGovern was never the liberal bogeyman Republicans cried about. It may even serve GOP interests today to claim that McGovern was a centrist compared to today's Democrats, though the reverse is probably the sad truth. George McGovern was arguably the first Democrat to suffer from a perception on the part of his party's core blue-collar constituents that the party had abandoned them for new idols, and after his defeat that constituency withered, many of them sacrificing themselves to Republicanism on the altar of culture war, many more still blaming Democrats for every job sacrificed to the bottom line. Many self-conscious working-class people today complain that Democrats don't represent them. McGovern's death is an occasion for them to ask whose fault that is.