We continue to hear a lot of concern that the Democrats could blow their chance for defeating Trump in 2020 by veering too far to the left. I’ve already expressed my belief that such concerns are overblown, that a fairly “leftist” Democratic platform and candidate would actually be right in the mainstream of popular opinion. Today I want to blunt a popular talking point of the “risky leftism” narrative: the allusion to the disaster of 1972. Democrats that year nominated George McGovern, certainly the most leftist major party candidate of the 20th century (probably ever) and look what happened: McGovern lost in a huge landslide to Richard Nixon. The obvious lesson: Democrats mustn’t go too far from the center.
I don’t think the lesson of 1972 is nearly as clear as people think it is. The reality is, Nixon would have won decisively no matter whom the Democrats had nominated. It’s easy to forget that Nixon in 1972 was very popular, and for good reason: he had kept his promise to dramatically wind down US involvement in the Vietnam War, reducing our troops on the ground from roughly half a million when he was elected in 1968 to just 25,000 by the time he was up for re-election. The economy was also doing well and Nixon had signed a raft of progressive legislation (environmental and consumer protection, occupational health & safety, etc.) that would be unimaginable for today’s GOP. In late June, before McGovern’s nomination, Nixon’s approval/disapproval rating stood at 56-33%, according to Gallup.
The presidential horserace polls also augured well for Nixon. In March, Gallup showed Nixon beating the two leading establishment Democrats, Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie, by 53-39% and 52-41% respectively. By late May, with Muskie out and McGovern rising, the polls showed Nixon beating Humphrey by a wopping 52-32% and McGovern by 53-34%–that is, by margins very comparable to the eventual November result. Right after the Democratic convention in July, Gallup showed Nixon winning 60-34%.
So, the Democrats already had a big deficit to overcome by the time McGovern was nominated. McGovern wasn’t up to that gargantuan challenge, which was made all the more daunting by the divided and chaotic Democratic nominating convention, which presented a picture of a party not ready to govern. (In truth, the McGovernites bore their share of responsibility for the contentiousness, which also made it harder to unify the party afterward.) Then there was l’affaire Eagleton, which started with the revelation that McGovern’s vice-presidential choice, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, had once undergone shock treatments for psychiatric problems. McGovern at first claimed 100% confidence in his man, but after two weeks of wavering in the face of widespread concern about the mental fitness of a possible future POTUS, McGovern backed down and Eagleton withdrew. McGovern took another five days to replace him. McGovern’s handling of the scandal didn’t look good, raising doubts about his decisiveness, strength and competence.
Conclusion: the attribution of the 1972 election disaster to leftist policy positions is dubious. Too much else was going on. As I said, any Democrat would have lost decisively that year. Would a more moderate McGovern have lost by a significantly less crushing margin? I doubt it. So, let’s by all means talk about how best to beat Trump. I remain open to the argument that a centrist strategy might be optimal. But let’s keep flawed historic analogies out of that discussion.