Stephen Colbert had George McGovern on tonight as his guest. I guess McGovern’s 1972 campaign is the new topic for discussion. A whole generation of Democrats were traumatized by that election and it has caused them to act like idiots ever since. Richard Cohen is a case in point.
In my 2007 column, I compared this presidential campaign to that of 1972, when George McGovern lost 49 states to Richard Nixon. The parallels are in some ways obvious — the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq, above all. What I could not have foreseen a year ago was how much more obvious the parallels would become. Back in ’72, the Democratic Party was split between doves and hawks, reformers and stogie smokers — even between men and women. The result was a national convention that was boisterous, unruly and ugly to look at. That convention might, however, look like a tea party compared with what could happen in Denver this August…
You can see it all happening again: a Republican charging that the Democrats are defeatist, soft on national security and not to be trusted with the White House. And you can see the Democratic Party heading toward Denver for yet another crackup. This time, instead of McGovern, a genuine war hero (the Distinguished Flying Cross) caricatured as a sissy, the party will put up either a candidate who has been inconsistent on the war or one with almost no foreign policy or military experience.
A year ago, it looked like the party could not lose. This year, it seems determined to try.
Let me just point out some obvious differences. In 1972, Richard M. Nixon was running for reelection. In 2008, there is no incumbent on the ticket. In 1972, Nixon had the best year of his presidency by traveling to China and the Soviet Union (where he and Leonid Brezhnev signed the SALT I Treaty). In addition, despite his failure to end the war in Vietnam in his first term in office, Nixon was able to draw down most of the troops, announce a tentative peace agreement, and (perhaps most importantly) Nixon’s party didn’t start the Vietnam War.
Nixon was a polarizing figure, but he had real foreign and domestic policy successes to run on. The Republican Party has nothing. The surge seems to have taken some of the bite out of the anti-war movement, but polls suggest that it is done little to nothing to impress the American people. The economy is a disaster. The GOP is in total disarray.
The best argument that 2008 is not a reprise of 1972 is the special election in Illinois’ 14th congressional district, where Democrat Bill Foster ran on ending the war and denying retroactive immunity to the telecommunications corporations for their illegal cooperation in Fourth Amendment violations. Foster won in a very Republican district that was formerly held by the Republican Speaker of the House. What more evidence do you need?
Cohen should focus on the real danger. Hillary Clinton could, if she does not concede gracefully, split the Democratic Party apart and weaken it. And that is the only way McCain can win. It has nothing to do with McGovern. In 1972, Richard Nixon didn’t just win an election. He also stole Richard Cohen’s balls. And Joe Klein’s. And a lot of other pundits that haven’t been able produce natural testosterone ever since…instead they’ve been borrowing if from Ronald Reagan, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Dick Cheney, or whoever else seemed to be a real man.