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Barth: McGovern taught lessons to today's Democrats


George McGovern image via Shutterstock

Just a couple weeks shy of my 6th birthday, I met my first presidential candidate. As part of a Southern tour, Sen. George McGovern came through Little Rock to shore up his nomination later in the summer of 1972 and to make what was ultimately a thoroughly unsuccessful appeal to Southern voters. While perhaps more politically conscious than most kids my age, my understanding of my family's support for McGovern — who died over the weekend — was vague, centered on the notion that he was a "good guy" who opposed a war they deeply disliked.

After his loss to Richard Nixon, McGovern remained the "anti-Nixon," as my initial understanding of American politics was forged by the Watergate Crisis, and McGovern remained a visible critic of the president. McGovern had attempted to use the scandal against Nixon in 1972 but did so only after the landslide was inevitable, partly as a result of the mismanagement of McGovern's campaign and partly as a result of the Nixon campaign's "dirty tricks." As McGovern had emphasized during his 1972 nomination acceptance speech: "From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America."

As a young adult, I watched McGovern regularly debate the issues of the day with Barry Goldwater, another former senator and failed presidential candidate. McGovern articulated well the core values of American liberalism as my own ideology became cemented and the two senators' agreeable disagreements honed my belief in civil discord.

McGovern not only played a role in my own political socialization, he remains relevant to American politics 40 years after his overwhelming defeat in 1972 in two fundamental ways.

First, after the fiasco that was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, McGovern co-chaired the McGovern-Fraser Commission that overhauled the rules through which delegates were selected for future conventions. Those rules, which McGovern used to perfection in crafting his 1972 nomination majority, created a system that enhanced the voice of rank-and-file activists in the Democratic Party, to the detriment of party bosses like Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. They ensured that traditional outsiders in politics would have an ongoing role in the party. In short, these new rules allowed two generations of traditional outsiders to find their political home in the Democratic Party not just as voters but as active players.

It is not a stretch to argue that there would have been no President Barack Obama without the McGovern-Fraser reforms. Those measures said that everyone, including the most unlikely of candidates like Obama, had a place at the table in the party, and Obama's campaign masterfully used the rules (over time slightly revised) in his historic 2008 nomination victory. Moreover, if Obama wins re-election on Nov. 6 it will be because of a "McGovern coalition" of women, young people, persons of color, and LGBT Americans that were dramatically outnumbered in 1972 but now, because of demographic change and political empowerment, are a potent combination of voters.

Second, while fundamentally right on the issue of Vietnam, McGovern allowed his views on national defense to be caricatured by Nixon. In addition, as he later understood, McGovern failed in not emphasizing his own World War II heroism during his campaign. Beginning in 1972 and for 35 years thereafter, Republicans were consistently perceived as being most able to handle national defense issues, an ongoing distraction — and electoral problem — for the Democrats.

However, both because of Bush-era irresponsibility and Obama administration success, Democrats have taken complete control of the issue — both in terms of military success itself and the care of veterans after their return home. That was shown during this year's Democratic National Convention and also during this week's final presidential debate when Mitt Romney produced a weak "me too" response on most issues. While the continual celebration of the death of Osama bin Laden feels awkward to a child of the McGovern era, it's a spot that brings Obama's party distinctive electoral benefits. While this is certainly not a foreign policy election, the Democrats' dominance on the issue may well help move the last few undecided voters who do trust Obama on this core issue.

If President Obama ekes out a win on Nov. 6, it will because of two lessons George McGovern taught us: inclusionary politics and controlling the national defense conversation win elections.

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