George McGovern, who died yesterday at 90, and Barry Goldwater make for a nifty historical parallel. Both were U.S. senators who became their parties' nominee for president. Both were men of principle, or ideologues if one views them unfavorably. Both got trounced in the general election by the other party's flawed incumbent, largely because voters saw them as too extreme.
But both had long-lasting effects on the ideological outlooks of their respective parties.
Without Goldwater, it's often argued, there would have been no President Reagan. We'd add that without McGovern, there would have been no President Obama.
McGovern helped move his party to the left on defense and social issues, but of particular importance was the influence he wielded over his party's presidential nomination process, described in his New York Times obituary:
He . . . became the chairman of a Democratic Party commission on delegate selection, created after the fractious 1968 national convention to give the rank and file more say in picking a presidential nominee.
What became known as the McGovern commission rewrote party rules to ensure that more women, young people and members of minorities were included in delegations. The influence of party leaders was curtailed. More states began choosing delegates on the basis of primary elections. And the party's center of gravity shifted decidedly leftward.
Though the rules were not written specifically to help Mr. McGovern win the nomination, they had that effect.
One might say McGovern reinvented the Democratic Party by putting identity politics at its center--by encouraging members to think of themselves first in terms of sex or age or skin color (or, later, by sexual orientation). E pluribus, multis.
In the 1973 book "Sexual Suicide," George Gilder speculated that such an approach "would find its reductio ad absurdum in a President who is an exact ethnic and sexual composite of the American demography--some kind of multiracial hermaphrodite from Kansas City."
When Gilder wrote that, Barack Obama was 12.
McGovernism has never proved sufficient to win an election for the Democrats. Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama both made gauzy promises to unify the nation, and Bill Clinton, 20 years after volunteering for the McGovern campaign as a law student, ran as a centrist. This year, however, Obama is being forced to try. With a record that is both lousy and divisive, he has little alternative but to attempt to construct a majority via appeals targeted to electoral subgroups.
One of the words most associated with McGovern is "decency." "Everybody noticed George S. McGovern's decency," writes political scientist Bruce Miroff in a Times op-ed remembrance. Robert F. Kennedy called him 'the most decent man in the Senate.' " In case you didn't get that, Miroff adds: "Mr. McGovern, who died early Sunday at the age of 90, was a decent man."
At The New Republic's website, the lefty author Rick Perlstein writes that McGovern's "unlikely victory" for the 1972 nomination "seemed to vindicate an abiding liberal fantasy, which President Obama sometimes seems to share: that if you just show yourself to be decent enough, the skeptics cannot help but come around."
Stipulating that McGovern was thoroughly decent and Richard Nixon far from it, it seems to us that Obama personifies a different liberal fantasy, namely the delusion that left-wing politics and decency are one and the same thing. This moral vanity leads the left to excuse, or even not to notice, indecent behavior on the part of their own. It is the reason Obama's re-election campaign has been less McGovernite than McCarthyite (and we don't mean Gene).
A mild example comes from the Hill: "President Obama on Friday mocked Mitt Romney's recent efforts to appeal to centrist voters, telling supporters at a Virginia rally that his Republican rival is suffering from 'Romnesia.' "-
Such juvenile wordplay may be worthy of Mother Jones's David Corn, who came up with "Romnesia" a few months ago, or of MoveOn.org ("General Betray Us"), or of Tailgunner Joe, who used to mock Arkansas's William Fulbright as "Senator Half Bright." Barack Obama does not regard it as beneath the dignity of the office with which he has been entrusted.
In a more sinister vein is a new Obama ad touting Obama's bailout of General Motors and Chrysler and aimed at Ohio. The ad is highly misleading: It criticizes Romney for penning an op-ed titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt" but doesn't note that GM and Chrysler did in fact go bankrupt.
But that's within the bounds of ordinary political tendentiousness. What's shocking is the words that appear on the screen at the end of the ad, over a silhouette of the Buckeye State: MITT ROMNEY. NOT ONE OF US.
If a Republican candidate for dogcatcher in Bugtussle, Ky., said Barack Obama was NOT ONE OF US, every liberal journalist in America would be demanding to know if Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner agreed. No one is asking that of Barack Obama. Then again, he's already answered. The ad begins with the president's voice: "I'm Barack Obama, and I approved this message."
"Journalists need to do more than call the play-by-play this election cycle," declares the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof. "We also need to blow the whistle on such egregious fouls calculated to undermine the political process and magnify the ugliest prejudices that our nation has done so much to overcome." This, of course, was in a 2008 column titled "The Push to 'Otherize' Obama." And here's a YouTube compilation of MSNBC's Chris Matthews and some Turkish dude complaining that Obama's critics were trying to portray him as "not one of us."
Have any lefties criticized the Obama campaign for not only trying to "otherize" Romney but actually using the phrase NOT ONE OF US? We put out a query on Twitter the other day, and the only examples anyone came up with were a tweet from the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty (" 'Not one of us' has a specific, ugly history in US politics. Bad place for the Obama campaign to go"), whom we hadn't thought of as especially left-wing. Tumulty follows up with an article today.
Then there was this comment in a Daily Kos thread (quoting verbatim):
The "Not One of Us" tagline at the end is very powerful, but also slightly disturbing, given that Obama's had to put up with all the "otherness"Kenyan-Muslim/un-American"exotic" crap since 2007.
Then again, I suppose that's the whole point of using that phrase.
Even this weak and swiftly rationalized-away expression of discomfort met with hostile responses from defenders of the foul ad, such as this one (again quoting verbatim):
I tend to encourage courtesy over rudeness on most occasions, which this is not.
We are in a fight that must be won. Not won at all costs, but as loosing isn't an option, I'm willing to go to the mat with counter-tactics that are effective. And calling out BS and divisiveness and lies is necessary. And citing the 'otherness' of the super-rich and super-entitled is necessary. The super-rich are mostly 'other'.
Like me, Obama had one foreign-born parent. Mine happened to be from Canada, but he was foreign-born. There are millions and millions of us with foreign-born parents.
But there are not millions and millions of us as rich as the Romneys. Those are the true 'others', which I think the Obama ad captures very well.
There are many adoptable cats and dogs being rescued around the country. You can save a life by adopting one.
You see how the logic works here. It's OK for us to "otherize" you, because, well, we're us, the good people, and therefore to say that you're NOT ONE OF US is a simple statement of fact. Plus, loosing isn't an option.
"There's safety in numbers / When you learn to divide," Peter Gabriel observed in his catchy 1980 tune "Not One of Us." Obama certainly hopes that's true, and in that sense he is a disciple of McGovern, with his bean-counting approach to politics.
But if McGovern were alive, he would strongly disapprove of the ugly turn the Obama campaign has taken. He was, after all, a decent man.