“It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” Will Rogers
For a generation now, conventional wisdom within the Democratic Party has held that “liberal” Democrats cannot get elected. This was the basic premise of Bill Clinton’s candidacy in 1992 and his success was widely considered to be irrefutable validation of the “centrist Democrat” approach to politics.
As an organizing principle, the idea didn’t get real traction until Michael Dukakis’ defeat by George Bush in 1988 but it’s George McGovern’s crushing loss to Richard Nixon in 1972 that’s more commonly cited by those who dismiss the idea of a genuinely progressive candidate like Bernie Sanders becoming the Democratic standard-bearer. Unfortunately, our collective memory of what happened in 1972 somehow seems to leave out the most important reason—by far—that the election turned into a disaster. And it wasn’t George McGovern’s politics.
McGovern was not the first choice of party leaders but his success throughout the primary process made his nomination inevitable. (This was a brave new world in politics. The Democrats’ previously nominee, Hubert Humphrey, didn’t win a single primary.) After securing the nod on July 12, McGovern approached Ted Kennedy to be his running mate, an offer that Kennedy publicly declined. McGovern then settled on Thomas Eagleton, described as “a little-known, pro-labor, Roman Catholic liberal from Missouri.” His quixotic candidacy got off to an uneven start but it wasn’t until two weeks later that the bombshell hit.
Following a whispering campaign in Washington, Eagleton admitted that he’d been hospitalized three times in the 1960s for depression and stress, and that he had undergone electric shock therapy, an enormous scandal that had not been uncovered during vetting. Days later, McGovern’s “1,000 percent” support for his embattled running mate evaporated as the situation became increasingly untenable. Eagleton resigned from the ticket on August 1.
Then, things got worse. Much worse. Wikipedia summarizes the rest of the story:
A new search was begun by McGovern. Six different prominent Democrats declined to run as his vice-president: Ted Kennedy, Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey, Abraham Ribicoff, Larry O’Brien and Reubin Askew. McGovern ultimately chose former Ambassador to France and former Director of the Peace Corps Sargent Shriver, a brother-in-law of John F. Kennedy. He was officially nominated by a special session of the Democratic National Committee. By this time, McGovern’s poll ratings had plunged from 41 to 24 percent.
By the time Shriver came on board, the entire fiasco had dominated coverage of the McGovern campaign for weeks. (Can you imagine a campaign stewing in a story like that for a almost a month?!) In the process, a half dozen of the party’s most prominent names had publicly rejected the nominee’s entreaties to help. Taking on an incumbent president like Richard Nixon would obviously been difficult under the best of circumstances but it was clearly the Thomas Eagleton story, not George McGovern’s policy prescriptions, that made the election result so lop-sided.
I’d also argue that Bill Clinton’s results in 1992 were somewhat anomalous and don’t support the “centrist Democrat” narrative as neatly as pundits seem to think. Clinton’s big break came in the aftermath of the first Iraq War when George W. Bush’s popularity surged to historic levels. Facing an incumbent president with such lofty approval ratings seemed like a fool’s errand. As a result, the prominent liberal Democrats who otherwise might have run that year—Bill Bradley, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, and Mario Cuomo—all backed out of the race before it ever began.
When the economy went south and took President Bush’s approval ratings along for the ride, Bill Clinton found himself facing a field that could reasonably be described as the Democratic Party’s AAA team. He won the nomination but never had to face his party’s best candidates in the process. He then went on to beat an astonishingly disengaged George Bush.
So count me among those who are not persuaded by the argument that an unabashed liberal can’t be a successful presidential candidate. It’s a tidy narrative but history doesn’t support it.