Watch out for historical precedents. While some get miscast, misconceived and misapplied, others jump out – begging for recognition. If the Sanders, Biden and other Democratic campaigns are paying attention, one election cycle is front of mind. By all appearances, 2020 is fast becoming 1972. For Trump voters, this is heartening. Already, the die may be firmly cast.
In 1972, George McGovern was Democratic nominee for President. An anti-establishment socially liberal, pro-government, anti-gun, pro-abortion, anti-war, anti-defense, and proud left-leaner, McGovern’s Democratic Party platform was heavy on giveaways, including a Yang-like family grant of $2,400. Where that money would come from was never explained.
The analogy to Bernie Sanders is not miscast. The closer one looks, the larger history looms. In 1972, America was fraying. Drug abuse was rising, violence in vogue, anti-traditionalism being pushed, patriotism being dismissed, and disunity widely recognized – in some places embraced.
While Democratic House Speaker Carl Albert would never have ripped up a State of the Union delivered by Republican President Richard Nixon, deep party divisions were afoot – both between the two major parties and within the Democratic Party.
Like Bernie Sanders, George McGovern was an outsider, outlier, and outcast. Like Sanders, he had galvanized anti-establishment feelings within the wider Democratic base. He drew younger voters, who opposed war and felt an all-powerful “government” could fix things.
If not overtly “socialist,” promising free healthcare, education, weather control, abortion on demand, and money on trees, McGovern was anathema to many – including many Democrats. He oversimplified what most understood were complex social, economic, security, and international dilemmas, often variegated and not subject to one-size-fits-all solutions.
Like Sanders, McGovern had run in the prior cycle, lost that nomination to an inveterate insider, Hubert Humphrey – former senator and vice president, not senator and Secretary of State. By 1972, McGovern had the angle, outdistancing the former vice president, as Sanders has Biden.
Like Biden, now 77, Humphrey was aging – but just 61. Like Biden, Humphrey had baggage from his vice-presidential days. He was a consummate insider, not “hip” like McGovern. Sanders at 78 seems more “hip” than Biden – even with new “fighter jock” sunglasses.
But the comparison to 1972 gets tighter. Beyond the divided nation, popular but polarizing President, domestic disaffections, international discord, national war-weariness, and the insider-outsider division inside the Democratic Party, something else was at work. It is again.
In 1972, McGovern’s supporters felt passionate, more so than Humphrey’s.
McGovern’s supporters were vaguely angry at Republicans and at their own party for trying to marginalize, diminish, ignore and overrule them. Unfairness in 1968 blossomed into belligerence.
As Sanders’ staff is doing, McGovern’s rushed to prevent an insider-takeover at the convention. The 1972 Democratic convention was rough, rancorous, and unruly, later described by the New York Times as a “disastrous start to the general election.”
Meantime, the Republican President – Richard Nixon – was running strong.
While he later fell to Watergate travails, he enjoyed 62 percent approval in late 1972. If not “making America great again,” he did manage to open China, found peace with adversaries, boosted the economy, and resolved to get America out of a tortuous time of warfighting.
Against that backdrop, McGovern’s enthusiastic following – and Humphrey’s anti-Nixon advertising – could neither unite Democrats nor create the synergy needed to oust Nixon. Quite the reverse: Despite high negatives – which dogged Nixon – the President was able to lower unemployment, boost growth and provide stability, although he wrestled rising inflation.
The parallel is imperfect, but a close-up of Democratic candidates in 2020 reveals forbidding similarities. Sanders, like McGovern, outflanked all the niche candidates, including Ted Kennedy and Ed Muskie, to capture the nomination. Yet most Democrats were not with him.
Like Democrats today, McGovern collected celebrity endorsements – which proved worthless. He had support from countless Hollywood names, including Carole King, Lauren Bacall, James Taylor, Paul Newman, Linda Ronstadt, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Barbara Streisand, and that ubiquitous trio “Peter, Paul, and Mary.”
Big names translated to nothing, in part because McGovern was different; some branches you just cannot graft. Besides, average Americans saw the world through their own eyes, not some train “500 miles away,” ridden and written by Peter, Paul, and Mary.
The economy was good, international trade, security, and America’s influence growing, old wars slowing, and some disunity becoming old hat.
Americans did not see themselves in McGovern, even if he thought they would buy his leftism. They did not thrill to Hubert Humphrey, either.
Instead, Americans liked – for the moment – the horse they were on, and Nixon was handily reelected in 1972. Moreover, Nixon was reelected on a massive landslide, all but burying McGovern and his progressive, leftist agenda.
On the numbers, Nixon ran the table. He took 520 electoral votes to McGovern’s 17. He produced a 23-percent popular victory. The 1972 electoral map was Nixon red, except for Massachusetts and DC.
So, how does this translate? To be sure, no one knows. But historical precedents are worth studying. Even at this moment, a vortex is sweeping former Vice President Biden into the role of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey. A progressive outsider, Bernie Sanders, is aping George McGovern. An incumbent president, disinclined to war, is on the rise.
Notably, few McGovern voters supported Humphrey in 1968. Distraught Humphrey voters did not vote for McGovern in 1972. Sanders voters – already sidelined in 2016 – are unlikely to pour out for a moderate if Democrats tip the scales in 2020. At the same time, moderate Democrats are not likely to climb aboard the Bernie bandwagon.
Much can happen in nine months, but history suggests Americans do not care what Hollywood starlets, self-satisfied singers, and media think.
They care about life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, their enduring right to speak, worship, assemble, and defend themselves.
In practical terms, they want to keep what they earn. They want less government, not more. They care about family, job, home value, quality of work, education, and healthcare. They want a solvent nation, solid respect abroad, no derision of patriotism, no knocking the flag, no nobbling border barriers, or diminishing America’s past. The year 2020 is not 1972. But if history is any guide – Americans want liberty more than lunacy. We will see in November.