For the record, in the 1974 election, before the full end of the war but certainly after the Democrats had become tainted by antiwarness the democrats picked up 49 seats in the House, increasing their majority to 291-144. In the Senate they picked up 3, for a total of 61.
This did follow the 1972 election where, yes, they lost 13 whole seats in the House, leaving them with only 242 seats. That year they gained 2 seats in the Senate, giving them a total of 56.
And then came the 1976 election, post-war, where Democrats picked up the presidency, 1 House seat, and stayed even in the Senate. …
…I’m sure someone has written about this, and maybe it reaches back farther than I remember, but this whole “Vietnam destroyed the Democrats” myth seems to be one which has recently taken hold. I don’t remember it from my teens, though I do remember that Jane Fonda sold a very popular line of exercise videos.
I’ve written about this before. See, for example, “Don’t Blame McGovern” and “Don’t Blame McGovern II.” It is not true, as some would have you believe, that George McGovern lost the 1972 election to Richard Nixon because McGovern was anti-war and Nixon was pro-war.
First, unlike our current Creature in the Oval Office, in 1972 Nixon fully acknowledged that it was time to withdraw combat troops from Vietnam and was in the process of doing so on election day. Of course, Nixon could have done the same thing four years earlier, and today the Vietnam Memorial would be only half as wide. (Indeed, as we now know that Nixon sabotaged Lyndon Johnson’s peace initiatives so that he could run against the war, were it not for Nixon the wall would be very small, indeed.)
Nixon was elected to his first term in 1968 in part because he promised to end the war in Vietnam. You can argue that in 1968 Nixon was the “peace” candidate, in fact. His Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, had been Lyndon Johnson’s Vice President, and of course in 1968 Vietnam was Lyndon Johnson’s War. I doubt Humphrey would have continued LBJ’s policies, but in 1968 there was widespread belief that he would.
But Nixon’s first term dragged on, and the war was escalated and then de-escalated, but didn’t end. Unlike Bush, however, Nixon was not holding out for some hazily defined “victory,” but rather “peace with honor,” meaning he wanted to wring some concessions out of the North Vietnamese before we left so that the U.S. wouldn’t lose face. But just about half of the U.S. military deaths of Vietnam — half of the people named on the wall — died while Nixon was diddling around. By the time McGovern began to campaign for the nomination, at least some people were saying the hell with honor; let’s just get the bleep out.
But in 1972 Nixon and Kissinger were very openly trying to end the war before the election. And just a week before the 1972 general election and Nixon’s landslide victory, Henry Kissinger held a press conference at the White House and declared that “peace is at hand.” The warring parties were right on the edge of a peace agreement, he said. This announcement turned out to be a tad premature, but Americans didn’t find out until after the election.
So, you see, this was not at all parallel with the current state of affairs.
As I discussed in the original “Don’t Blame McGovern” posts, McGovern’s candidacy had several strikes against it that had nothing to do with the war. Notable among these was the visible dumping of his original Vice Presidential candidate, the late Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. But there were several other problems that you can read about in the old posts and that I’m not going to go into here.
As Atrios argues, although McGovern was badly trounced, election results overall from the 1970s just don’t show a clear pattern of the Dems getting punished wholesale at the polls for Vietnam. The Republican Party didn’t really begin its ascent into dominance until Reagan was elected in 1980. That was seven years after the last U.S. combat troop was withdrawn from Vietnam, and five years after the fall of
So why did the Democratic Party fall apart? In short, the party had been sustained since FDR’s time by the New Deal coalition, and that coalition collapsed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Certainly Vietnam was a factor, but so was the counterculture, and the civil rights movement, and the feminist movement, and the New Left generally. I’ve spelled this out in detail in the past; see, for example:
â€œHey, Hey, LBJ â€¦â€
There are many factors that came together in the 1960s and 1970s that resulted in a weakened, spineless, and soulless Democratic Party. I explain these in detail in the posts above, which I wrote as a kind of series last August. But there are two major factors I’d like to point out:
In the 1970s and 1980s, white voters left the Dem Party in droves and began to vote Republican, mostly because Nixon, Reagan, and others did a bang-up job exploiting racism. I think the racist backlash to Dem support of civil rights and antipoverty programs cost Democrats far more, in the long run, than the war in Vietnam did.
Second, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, New Left ideologies discouraged young activists from getting involved in party politics. Instead, progressivism broke up into single-issue advocacy movements that competed with each other for funds and attention. The New Deal coalition dissolved, nothing took its place, and the Democratic Party itself lost clear identity and purpose. IMO it’s important to look hard at this second issue, because I see a lot of activists today making the same mistakes the New Left made years ago.