When President Obama praised George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee who died Sunday, as “a statesman of great conscience and conviction,” I’m sure he was doing more than paying lip service to a party colleague whose political career effectively ended when the president was still in grade school. McGovern, more than anyone else, is responsible for shaping the Democratic Party that Obama leads.
It was a commission led by McGovern that rewrote the rules on delegate selection for the party’s presidential conventions to establish racial and gender quotas. (“The way we got the quota thing through was by not using the word ‘quotas,’ ” he bragged later.) It was those rules, and not Richard Nixon’s so-called Southern strategy, that chased away the party’s blue-collar backbone and turned the Democrats seriously leftward.
The McGovern candidacy that resulted was a catastrophe, carrying just one state and the District of Columbia against Nixon. But it was the first step in a long march that eventually resulted in the nomination of Obama, the most left-wing candidate in the history of America’s mainstream parties. Much of Obama’s administration has been a long-delayed wish fulfillment for the Baby Boomers who marched in McGovern’s crusade — particularly the president’s trillion-dollar stimulus plan, surely some kind of kissing cousin of McGovern’s infamous 1972 proposal for the federal government to give $1,000 to every man, woman and child in America. (Oh, for the days when a mere $210 billion giveaway caused economists to faint in disbelief.)
But there’s one respect in which it’s very difficult to see how the Democratic Party got here from there: foreign policy. Though McGovern’s eulogies this week all correctly note that he was the first U.S. politician of any importance to denounce the Vietnam war, during a 1963 speech on the Senate floor, hardly anybody has pointed out that McGovern opposed virtually all American military intervention abroad.
McGovern was neither a political opportunist surfing a popular anti-war wave nor a member of the daffy American left who thought the Vietnamese yearned for Stalinist rule. He opposed the war, he said, for the simple reason that it was none of our business. “Who really appointed us to play God for people elsewhere around the globe?” he asked a reporter during the 1972 campaign. A principled anti-interventionist, he also wanted to slash the Pentagon’s budget and sharply reduced U.S. troop commitments in NATO and Japan.
What a long, strange trip it’s been for the Democratic Party, from McGovern’s promise to end the Vietnam war on the day of his inaugural to Obama’s creation of “kill lists” for the Middle East countries over which his clouds of lethal drones hover. As a senator, McGovern helped push through the War Powers Act, limiting a president’s ability to make war with congressional approval; as president, Obama sneered that he didn’t need anybody’s approval to go to war in Libya.
Whatever you thought about the Vietnam War, it was at least part of a clearly enunciated strategy of resisting the expansion of communism during the Cold War. What, exactly, was the purpose of Obama’s intervention in Libya, the main result of which seems to have been the slaughter of a U.S. diplomatic mission there? Why are we sending weapons to Syrian rebels which, the New York Times reported earlier this month, wind up mostly in the hands of Islamic jihadists?
By the count of journalists, Obama’s drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya may have killed more than 4,000 people. Some of them, by design, have been U.S. citizens. Some have surely been innocent civilians. The White House says it has a legal justification for this, but it’s too secret for mere taxpayers to get a look at.
“From secrecy and deception in high places; come home, America!” George McGovern begged in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination. Forty years later, the echo is faint indeed.