[See update below]
George McGovern did not lose the 1972 presidential election because he called for withdrawal from Vietnam. I repeat, George McGovern did not lose the 1972 presidential election because he called for withdrawal from Vietnam.
How do I know this? Simple. In 1972, both bleeping major party candidates — Republican Nixon and Democrat McGovern — were calling for a bleeping withdrawal from bleeping Vietnam.
The Vietnam issue in 1972 was not at all parallel to the pro-war and anti-war positions people are taking now. In 1972, a substantial majority of the electorate recognized the course was unstayable and wanted it to end. And in 1972, President Richard bleeping Nixon and his Secretary of State, the motherbleeping Henry Kissinger, tried frantically to end the war before the 1972 elections. The Nixon-Kissinger “October surprise” was the announcement of a peace settlement with North Vietnam (which fell through after the elections). And this is what Richard Nixon promised in his acceptance speech at the bleeping 1972 Republican convention:
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.
I’m bringing this up because of this article by David Kirkpatrick in yesterday’s New York Times.
Democrats have spent three decades trying to exorcise the ghost of Senator George S. McGovern, whose losing 1972 presidential campaign calling for a withdrawal from Vietnam crystallized his party’s image as soft on national defense.
But as they look ahead, Democrats are torn between two visions of their history. Some potential candidates in the 2008 Democratic primary and many liberal activists argue that the Republican responsibility for the Iraq war has, in effect, freed the Democrats from Mr. McGovern’s legacy. They say the 2006 elections will provide a mandate for a new antiwar argument: that troops can be pulled from Iraq in order to shore up American security elsewhere in the world.
Other strategists and political scientists argue that the Iraq war has given the Democrats a different opportunity to lay to rest their McGovernite image, in part by rejecting calls for a quick withdrawal in Iraq.
“All voters are doing is giving Democrats a chance, and we better not blow it,” said Gary Hart, the former senator and presidential candidate.
But reality tends to be more complicated and, yes, nuanced than what you see on TV.
First, as I documented in this post, Republicans didn’t suddenly strip Dems of their national security credentials in 1972. In fact, the “Dems are appeasing weenies” campaign began shortly after World War II. This was in spite of the fact that two Democratic presidents had successfully brought the nation through that terrible conflict, and the Republicans on the whole had misjudged Hitler and had counseled a course of isolationism and appeasement. But through a full-court-press offensive consisting mostly of hysteria, paranoia, and bare-assed lies, by 1960 Republicans had successfully stuck a “soft on national security” label on Democrats. John Kennedy beat Richard Nixon (barely) in 1960 because he was handsome and virile and a war hero (Republicans hadn’t yet thought up “swift boating”), and because JFK successfully marketed a counter-lie, known as the “missile gap,” to stick on Republicans.
In the 1968 election campaigns, Republican Nixon was the presidential candidate promising to find a way to get out of Vietnam, not the Democrat, Hubert Humphrey. Rightly or wrongly, since Humphrey had been Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, people associated him with the Vietnam War. For this reason, many people who were opposed to the war voted for Nixon in1968. And in 1972 Nixon did everything but stand on his head and whistle Dixie to assure voters the Vietnam conflict was just about over; he did this to take the antiwar issue away from McGovern. Nixon was not promising to stay courses, stay until the job was done, or stay until “victory.”
Yet all these years later, conventional wisdom says that Dems lost in 1968 and 1972 because they were antiwar, and Republicans won because they were prowar. And that isn’t how it was.
As I discussed in the first “Don’t Blame McGovern” post, Nixon did charge McGovern with being soft on national security. But this charge was based mostly on McGovern’s call for a reduction in defense spending.
There was also the question of “honor.” As Nixon himself admitted in the 1972 speech linked above, he had promised to put an end to the Vietnam conflict back in 1968. And now it was 1972, and the war was still an issue. In four years Nixon had thrashed around with one ineffectual policy after another to find an “honorable” way to withdraw, and as he did so the list of names that eventually would be carved on the Vietnam memorial in Washington about doubled its length. And so McGovern threw his hat into the presidential ring, saying it was time to stop messing around and just get the bleep out. In 1972 this was not an unpopular position. (And, in fact, “just get the bleep out” was pretty much what we would eventually do, and the “honorable” provisions Nixon had sought mostly would be ignored.)
As I wrote in the first “Don’t Blame McGovern” post, McGovern’s campaign sank because of events and issues other than Vietnam. Chief among these was race and the emergence of the New Left, which helped Nixon a whole lot more than it helped McGovern. (See also “Hey, Hey, LBJ,” and “Countercultural.”)
Yet all these years later, even Democrats who are old enough to know better (like Gary Hart) have bought into the “Dems lost because they were antiwar” lie.
David Kirkpatrick continues,
A younger McGovern could probably win the Democratic primary, Mr. Hart said, but he would still lose the general election. “Just running on a platform of ‘get us out of Iraq’ is not going to solve the Democrats’ problem on the issue of national security,” he said.
This is true. Democrats today cannot ignore the threat of terrorism, just as Democrats in 1972 could not ignore the threat of Communism. But I think the Dems could make an excellent case that the Bush Administration has not made the nation safer and take the “security” issue away from Republicans. Over the past several months a number of polls reveal much of the public does not think the Iraq War has made the nation safer.
After Vietnam, there was a brief time when both parties seemed to compete to be seen as the party of restraint: the moment in the 1976 presidential race when Senator Bob Dole, the Republican nominee for vice president, charged that the “Democrat wars” of the 20th century had killed or wounded “1.6 million Americans, enough to fill the city of Detroit.”
But the Iranian hostage crisis three years later put an end to that short peace fad. And ever since President Ronald Reagan’s campaign for a military buildup, Democrats have suffered from a reputation as the party that was less sure to keep America safe. Their only presidential victories were in the years of relative peace between the end of the cold war and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
During the Iranian hostage crisis, Reagan built upon the “Dems are soft on defense” campaign that by then had been waged for about 30 years, painting Jimmy Carter as the prototypical “weak” Democrat. And in the years since the notion that Dems lost in 1968 and 1972 because they were antiwar has taken hold in popular imagination. But that isn’t what happened.
During the midterm campaigns, Democrats have risen in the polls merely by attacking President Bush’s conduct of the war. They have not spelled out or agreed on a clear alternative of their own.
As I’ve said many times before, individual Dems have brought forth several proposals that seem workable to me, but because the Dems as a party have not agreed on one of them, the Dems are accused of having no alternative proposals. Republicans have no plans at all and get away with it. Go figure. Meanwhile, at Huffington Post, Suzanne Nossel has an excellent article on a progressive national security policy.
The real issue for Dems, seems to me, is not whether Dems are antiwar or prowar. It’s whether they seem strong or weak. And strong is strong, whether against military opponents or political opponents; think President Clinton and the shutdown of Congress in 1995. Every time Dems have done a steppin’ fetchit routine to appease the Bush Administration and look “tough” on security, they look weak. Now is the time for Dems to stand up, look the Bushies and neocons in the eye, and say you people have no idea what the bleep you are doing, and you’re running the country and the military and national security into the ground, and it’s time someone else (like us) took over.
That’s what being “strong on national security” looks like. Not this.
Back in the New York Times, Kirkpatrick continues:
Pleasing the party’s “bring ’em home” base while burnishing its security credentials may not be easy. A USA Today poll released Friday showed that more than 80 percent of the public expects Democrats to set a timetable for a withdrawal from Iraq if they take control of Congress. But so far none of Democratic Congressional leaders has called for a fixed deadline.
I think most of the “bring ’em home” base is mature enough to understand that the military occupation of Iraq isn’t going to end with the wave of a wand. To minimize casualties among U.S. troops, at the very least, any withdrawal must be carefully planned and executed, and it can’t be done overnight. If someone can make an argument that this plan is less dangerous than that one, or might leave Iraq in a less volatile condition, I’m willing to listen to it. I hope you are, too.
For now, all I’m asking is that the next time you hear someone say McGovern lost in 1972 because he was against the war in Vietnam, smack ’em. Smack ’em hard. Because that’s not true.
Update: See Charles Pierce via Sam Rosenfeld at TAPPED on the continued odious presence of the Vichycrats —
HERE WE GO AGAIN. Well, this was a nice little present a week out from the election, wasn’t it?
Raise your hand if you’ve heard Ellen Tauscher’s name any time in the past six years.
I thought as much. Why doesn’t The New York Times just dig up Carl Albert and ask him what he thinks? He’s been about as relevant to the politics of the day as la Tauscher is, and he’s a damn sight better Democrat having been dead for six years than she is alive and yapping.
Why, oh Lord, why do Democratic politicians cooperate with stories like this? Mind you, I’m not arguing for freezing out the NYT, or that the story isn’t it a legitimate one, but how hard can it be for professional politicians and professional political activists to keep from tossing rocks at each other in public? The correct answer for everyone in this piece goes something like this: “The important thing for all of us is to strike the power from the hands of a corrupt, reckless, and criminally negligent Republican Party, which refuses to police the lunatics in its own ranks because its political success has depended for almost three decades on catering to an extremist agenda and to the worst of our human impulses.”
Repeat until reporter’s eyes glaze over.
But, no, let’s all have a wonderfully productive conversation (again) on what chunk of the privacy rights of 51 percent of the American people we’re willing to pitch overboard, and how scary even we find Nancy Pelosi. Or, alternatively, let’s line up with the MoveOn guy and talk about why we’d run someone against Heath Shuler, who hasn’t even been elected yet.
God, as Woody Allen said in Annie Hall, what I wouldn’t give for a large sock full of manure.
–Charles P. Pierce
As you probably infer, this rant was inspired by yet another New York Times piece about how Republican Lite DINOs are going to save the Democratic Party from its ravng lunatic liberal base (that’s us).
Matt Stoller, who in the past couple of years may have persuaded more people to vote for Dems than Tauscher has in her whole sorry political career, says,
I know that a lot of us want to put our heads down and get Democrats elected, no matter what. And we will, because we are loyal Democrats who follow the rules. Our power comes from our principles and our willingness to play as a team to improve all of our lots.
Unfortunately, just like the Senate Democrats want to hurt us in Connecticut, New Democrats are sadly spending their time setting up the next session to beat up on progressives, according to the New York Times. …
…You know, I wish that we could have party unity, but it’s obvious that New Democrats simply cannot help themselves. They have to go through the 1980s and 1990s all over again, no matter what.
I … am … so … sick … of … this … crap.