Political analysts tend to overinterpret the results of isolated elections. But you can hardly read too much into Ned Lamont’s defeat of Joe Lieberman in Connecticut’s Aug. 8 primary. This is a signal event that will have a huge and lasting negative impact on the Democratic Party. The result suggests that instead of capitalizing on the massive failures of the Bush administration, Democrats are poised to re-enact a version of the Vietnam-era drama that helped them lose five out six presidential elections between 1968 and the end of the Cold War.
The challenge for Democrats is that Republicans already are pointing to the anti-war activists who flocked to Lamont, and their penchant for edgy political tactics, as evidence that Democrats can’t be trusted with the nation’s security.
“We’ll soon find out just how significant this election is, but it’s a problem for Democrats long-term,” the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said after Lamont had won.
“The McGovern wing of the Democrat party seems to have forgotten that we’ve been on offense for the last five years and that’s why we haven’t been attacked here at home.” …
… “Republicans are anxious to say the left wing is taking over, the antisecurity wing” of the Democratic Party, the three-term senator [Lieberman] said recently, not exactly rebutting the claim as he repeated it.
[Update: See also Mike Allen's absurd commentary in Time.]
Let’s dissect this “McGovern / antisecurity” nonsense. First, George McGovern was not opposed to national security; he was opposed to the bleeping war in Vietnam. During World War II McGovern “flew 35 combat missions as a B-24 bomber pilot in Europe, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross,” says this web site from his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University. This suggests to me that he supported national security. But the war in Vietnam wasn’t making us safer from anyone; it was pure folly. Like Iraq.
Second, the Democratic Party didn’t falter because of opposition to Vietnam. I realize The Story we’re supposed to believe is that in 1972 people voted for Nixon because he was strong on national security and pro-war, while McGovern was a sock who wanted to turn the keys to Washington over to Chairman Mao. But this is not an accurate picture of the time.
The bare facts are that, as I wrote here, by 1972 at least 60 percent of the public thought the war in Vietnam was a mistake. While a minority of the public remained hawkish, and the Nixon Administration continued military action, the Nixon Administration was not promising to “stay the course.” Indeed, President Nixon kept promising the American people he was looking for a way out.
The 1972 election was not a simple referendum for or against the war in Vietnam Vietnam. Note these items from this timeline:
Although Kissinger’s staff members privately express concerns over allowing NVA troops to remain in the South, Kissinger rebuffs them, saying, “I want to end this war before the election.”
The fact is that the contest in 1972 was not between a hawk and a dove, but between a dove (you could argue Nixon was a hawk in dove’s feathers) trying to save face through a peace agreement and a dove who said, the hell with saving face; let’s just get out. I strongly suspect that if Nixon in 1972 were acting the way President Bush is now — in denial about the scope of the disaster, and with no plan other than “stay the course” — the 1972 elections could have gone the other way.
You want to know what the 1972 elections really were about? Check out Richard Nixon’s 1972 Republican Convention acceptance speech.
The first issue Nixon launched into was not Vietnam, but quotas. He was speaking out against Affirmative Action. He spoke of “millions who have been driven out of their home in the Democratic Party” — this was a nod to the old white supremacist Dixiecrats who were leaving the Democratic Party because of its stand in favor of civil rights (the famous Southern Strategy). McGovern had proposed a guaranteed minimum income for the nation’s poor that was widely regarded as radical and flaky and (in popular lore) amounted to taking tax money away from white people and giving it to blacks. Nixon warned that McGovern’s policies would raise taxes and also add millions of people to welfare roles — another racially charged issue. Then Nixon took on one of his favorite issues, crime. If you remember those years you’ll remember that Nixon was always going on about “lawnorder.” This was another issue with racial overtones, but it was also a swipe at the “permissiveness” of the counterculture and the more violent segments of the antiwar and Black Power movements.
Finally, toward the end, he addressed Vietnam:
Peace is too important for partisanship. There have been five Presidents in my political lifetime–Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson.
They had differences on some issues, but they were united in their belief that where the security of America or the peace of the world is involved we are not Republicans, we are not Democrats. We are Americans, first, last, and always.
These five Presidents were united in their total opposition to isolation for America and in their belief that the interests of the United States and the interests of world peace require that America be strong enough and intelligent enough to assume the responsibilities of leadership in the world.
They were united in the conviction that the United States should have a defense second to none in the world.
They were all men who hated war and were dedicated to peace.
But not one of these five men, and no President in our history, believed that America should ask an enemy for peace on terms that would betray our allies and destroy respect for the United States all over the world.
As your President, I pledge that I shall always uphold that proud bipartisan tradition. Standing in this Convention Hall 4 years ago, I pledged to seek an honorable end to the war in Vietnam. We have made great progress toward that end. We have brought over half a million men home, and more will be coming home. We have ended America’s ground combat role. No draftees are being sent to Vietnam. We have reduced our casualties by 98 percent. We have gone the extra mile, in fact we have gone tens of thousands of miles trying to seek a negotiated settlement of the war. We have offered a cease-fire, a total withdrawal of all American forces, an exchange of all prisoners of war, internationally supervised free elections with the Communists participating in the elections and in the supervision.
Not exactly “stay the course,” is it? And Nixon doesn’t argue that McGovern’s withdrawal proposal amounted to being weak on national security. Instead, he argued that it would be ignoble and a betrayal of our allies: “[I]t will discourage our friends abroad and it will encourage our enemies to engage in aggression.”
The charge that McGovern is weak on national security comes at the very end. McGovern proposed “massive cuts in our defense budget which would have the inevitable effect of making the United States the second strongest nation in the world,” Nixon said. He didn’t have to explain that the “first strongest nation”would have been our long-time nemesis, the Soviet Union.
Still, you’d think that, as unpopular as the Vietnam War was, and as unlikeable as Nixon and Agnew were, McGovern would have done better. But there were other factors at work.
First, George McGovern was not the candidate the Democratic Party establishment wanted to run. As explained in more detail in this article, in 1972 primaries had just begun to eclipse smoke-filled rooms in the nominating process. Because he had alienated many powerful Democrats during his nomination bid, McGovern received only tepid support from the Democratic Party itself during his general election campaign. Then McGovern’s original running mate, Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, was found to be difficult (officially it was announced Eagleton had a history of mental illness; rumors in Missouri said Eagleton was an alcoholic) and so he was replaced with Sargent Shriver. People around the nation wrote McGovern off as a flake after that. Nixon was creepy, but in many ways he had been an effective president. Nixon won re-election partly on the “devil you know” factor.
As I wrote here, during this Vietnam era the old New Deal coalition fell apart, but not primarily because of the war. Instead, it crumbled because it could not accommodate the social and cultural challenges of the times. I call your attention to another essay by Fred Siegel (scroll down to the American History subhead; emphasis added):
Liberalism in the Truman era seemed to be simple self-interest to most families who benefited from the G.I. bill and veterans’ mortgages. Campaigning in 1948 on the slogan “All I ask you to do is vote for yourself, vote for your family,” Harry S. Truman not only defeated challenges from his left and right, but triumphed despite drawing only limited support from the top tiers as measured by wealth, education, or occupation.
New Deal liberalism’s final political victory came in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson once again defeated Hoover’s ghost in the form of the outspoken economic libertarian Barry Goldwater. Johnson went on, in effect, to complete much of the New Deal’s agenda by expanding its social and health benefits for the poor, the elderly, and African-Americans who had earlier been ignored. …
… By the middle of the decade, New Deal liberalism was in retreat, routed initially not so much by its conservative opponents as by new forms of liberalism, which had emerged in response to the cataclysms of those years. In the next quarter century, its reputation declined until in the 1988 presidential race “liberal” became the “L word,” an epithet.
New issues, such as racial justice and the misuse of a now powerful presidency to fight a morally untenable war in Vietnam, destroyed the New Deal political coalition. At the same time a renewed fear of government as a threat to individual moral autonomy, defined in terms not of property but of lifestyle, undermined the social and cultural assumptions of the New Deal’s mild collectivism and authoritative institutions. Both civil rights and lifestyle liberalism were moral critiques of meat-and-potatoes majoritarianism and both pursued their goals through the courts, the “undemocratic” branch of government the New Deal had, in large measure, defined itself against.
The original FDR-era New Deal discriminated against blacks. This was largely because FDR had to cut deals with the southern Democrats to get his programs through Congress. Fact is, “entitlement” programs were very popular through the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s until they were expanded to include African Americans. By the 1960s many of the same white Americans who had benefited from the New Deal, the GI Bill, and postwar housing and mortgage subsidy programs suddenly decided that such programs encouraged people to be lazy and dependent on government. Race was the elephant in the living room of American politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Although prominent politicians rarely gave explicitly racist messages, racism screamed loudly and clearly between the lines. Nixon’s acceptance speech is a good example.
Back to Siegel:
New Deal liberalism had been erected on the understanding that it was the job of government to protect the virtuous people from the rapacious interests. But, asked the new politics liberals of the 1960s, what if the people themselves were corrupted by materialism, imperialism, racial bigotry, and a variety of other malignancies? Their answer, inspired in large measure by the civil rights movement, was to return to a pre-New Deal definition of democracy based largely on court-generated rights. Denuded of its democratic drive, liberalism had become minoritarian.
Beginning with Richard Nixon, the Republicans picked up the “common man” theme and ran with it to victories in five of six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988. Where FDR had spoken of the “forgotten man,” Republicans like Nixon and Ronald Reagan spoke of the “silent majority” imperiled by crime and court-ordered “social engineering.” Conservatives played on the opposition to social policies like busing for racial integration to argue that government, not big business, was the great danger to the average American. By the 1988 presidential election, twice as many voters defined themselves as conservatives than as liberals. Liberals, members of the party of court-protected minorities, had themselves become a minority.
It was the move away from democratic progressivism and toward “identity politics” that rendered the Democratic Party a shell of its former self, IMO. Consider the 1972 Democratic Convention, in which fights over the party’s platform dominated the floor on the night nominee McGovern was supposed to give his speech. Television viewers saw angry black and feminist delegates in heated argument with labor and party regulars; McGovern didn’t give his speech until about 3 a.m. (A shame, because it was a good speech.) And this scared the bejeesus out of Mr. and Mrs. White Middle-Class American, who flocked to Nixon to protect them.
Meanwhile, as the Left came apart, the Right got its act together. During the 1970s a number of wealthy conservatives began to build the media and political infrastructures that dominate U.S. politics today. This was the beginning of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, in other words.
And that, boys and girls, is the true story behind The Story.
So while the Weisbergs and the Cokies and other pundits declare that the Democrats are repeating old mistakes, in most ways struggle within the party today is entirely different from what happened in 1972.
An editorial in yesterday’s New York Times called Tuesday’s Connecticut primary “revenge of the irate moderates.” (Emphasis added.)
The defeat of Senator Joseph Lieberman at the hands of a little-known Connecticut businessman is bound to send a message to politicians of both parties that voters are angry and frustrated over the war in Iraq. The primary upset was not, however, a rebellion against the bipartisanship and centrism that Mr. Lieberman said he represented in the Senate. Instead, Connecticut Democrats were reacting to the way those concepts have been perverted by the Bush White House. …
… Mr. Lieberman’s supporters have tried to depict Mr. Lamont and his backers as wild-eyed radicals who want to punish the senator for working with Republicans and to force the Democratic Party into a disastrous turn toward extremism. It’s hard to imagine Connecticut, which likes to be called the Land of Steady Habits, as an encampment of left-wing isolationists, and it’s hard to imagine Mr. Lamont, who worked happily with the Republicans in Greenwich politics, leading that kind of revolution.
The rebellion against Mr. Lieberman was actually an uprising by that rare phenomenon, irate moderates. They are the voters who have been unnerved over the last few years as the country has seemed to be galloping in a deeply unmoderate direction. A war that began at the president’s choosing has degenerated into a desperate, bloody mess that has turned much of the world against the United States. The administration’s contempt for international agreements, Congressional prerogatives and the authority of the courts has undermined the rule of law abroad and at home.
Yet while all this has been happening, the political discussion in Washington has become a captive of the Bush agenda. Traditional beliefs like every person’s right to a day in court, or the conviction that America should not start wars it does not know how to win, wind up being portrayed as extreme. The middle becomes a place where senators struggle to get the president to volunteer to obey the law when the mood strikes him. Attempting to regain the real center becomes a radical alternative.
Further, the “netroots” Left today is keenly interested in the “meat-and-potatoes” issues that the New Left dissed in 1972 — jobs, health care, pensions, and other policies that support the American middle class.
I say again, today’s political struggle bears little resemblance to the Vietnam era. It ain’t 1972 any more. We liberals and progressives must challenge The Story. We need to clarify what happened then, and we must not allow rightie propaganda to deter us from our purpose now.
I want to close by linking to this article written by George McGovern in April 2003, just a month into the disaster of Iraq. He saw more clearly than most exactly what was happening. McGovern is a good guy, and the way his name is evoked to call shame upon Democrats is a damn injustice.
See also: Digby.
UPDATE: More historical background by a diarist at Daily Kos. My one quibble is that I’m not sure how much the Democrats were seen to have embraced the counterculture in 1968, especially after the Grant Park, um, protests during the
1972 1968 Democratic Convention. Certainly by 1972 the counterculture and the Democrats seemed an old married couple to most of the public, even though the New Left and the old establishment Dems weren’t entirely on speaking terms. (Hat tip: Digby)