Commentary Magazine


McGovern and the Democrats

To the Editor:

“The Democrats’ Dilemma” by Elliott Abrams [February] surely must consist of more than an indictment of George McGovern and the New Politics forces in the 1968 and 1972 campaigns. . . . I believe Mr. Abrams is on rather shaky ground in some of his premises . . . [and] might be suffering from Eastern provincialism. Let me present my case.

Perhaps the New York . . . McGovernites were upper-middle-income people who “sacrificed their European vacation to work for McGovern,” but the vast majority of the college young who worked in the McGovern campaign either were unable to find jobs, or had fears of not being able to find jobs in their field upon graduation. . . . In addition to the youths, there were thousands upon thousands of housewives from every sector of the economy—from welfare mothers to bankers’ wives. These people were joined by citizens from every racial stock, from every ethnic group, from every religion, from every occupational group. The vast majority of volunteers certainly would not qualify as “elite” by either economic or social standards. Even the comfortable were likely to be products of lower-middle-class working families. It is wrong to assume that jobs were not important to them; it is wrong to assume that they had no sympathy with the blue-collar worker; and today it is wrong to assume that the issue of jobs separates the McGovern wing from the other wings of the Democratic party. . . .

Mr. Abrams’s article emphasizes one aspect of the 1972 campaign, but ignores other factors that led to defeat. In the Ripon Society’s Jaws of Victory, the authors point out that while McGovern might have lost some conservative old-line Democrats during the hectic convention, he picked up major support among independents. . . . But the Eagleton affair . . . disenchanted these voters, possibly because of overemotional press coverage in favor of Eagleton. The whole campaign effort was demoralized. McGovern’s ratings in the polls fell again, and the campaign never really recovered. . . .

In addition, the primary battles were an important reason for the party’s defeat in November. The attacks on McGovern by Jackson and Humphrey were brutal, and Muskie’s “Hamlet” behavior did not add to party unity. . . .

The most feeble complaint, however, is the accusation that the McGovern wing stole the nomination through party reforms fostered by McGovern. But these new regulation were accepted by the National Committee under Lawrence O’Brien. The national organization certainly was not under the thumb of McGovern . . . and it certainly was not stacked in favor of the reformers. Labor’s representatives did not attend the meetings nor did they contribute their votes to the outcome; this was their choice—not that of the reformers. McGovern stated very clearly to Stewart Alsop in a Newsweek column exactly how he intended to win the nomination: to use the reforms whenever he possibly could to gain delegates. It certainly wasn’t McGovern’s fault if the regulars, the labor leaders, the pundits did not listen to him. . . .

But most of all Mr. Abrams ignores the fact of George Wallace. Hubert Humphrey did not do that much better in 1968 than McGovern did in 1972. If Mr. Abrams’s formula for success in national politics were true, Humphrey should have won the election easily in 1968. In fact, McGovern did better than Humphrey in many congressional districts in percentage of votes. Subtract organized labor and subtract Wallace votes from Nixon, and you will find that McGovern received the same percentage as Humphrey. . . .

The real conflicts between the reformers and the establishment politicians at Kansas City were: is the party going to take positions on issues (McGovern’s speech); is the Democratic party going be built from the bottom up—or is it a party of elected officials; and how much influence will rank-and-file Democrats have in the selection of the party’s candidates? In other words, a struggle for party power. . . .

Many of us believe that the Democratic party must work from the ground up to restore confidence in our system. By allowing full participation of anyone who is interested, the party will gradually reflect all the concerns of the nation. The politicians are our servants—not vice versa. . . .

Mr. Abrams’s attacks on McGovern and the reformers of the Democratic party are counter-productive. The real problem of the Democrats is how to restore confidence in the government, how to defang the Wallace threat, and how to build a platform that will keep popular loyalty. In addition to the regular registered Democrats, the 40 per cent of the people who consider themselves independent must be brought back into the party system. . . . The Democratic party should build its support on more than economic disaster. There are many viewpoints on how this should be done. But no sensible believer in the Democratic party can unify the party by attacking personalities.

Last of all, the article is very disturbing to me because Mr. Abrams appears to feel that it is a “crime” for the 1972 Democratic candidate for President to make passionate appeals for his positions and his dreams. He has paid the price of defeat, he has paid the price for his mistakes, and he evidently does not think it was too high for he intends to remain an outspoken advocate of his principles. In this nation, McGovern has the right to be a prophet rather than a politician if he so desires. Besides, none of the books, articles, and discussions of the 1972 election ever discusses whether McGovern would have been a better President than Nixon. It seems to me that though he might have lost many of the battles, he will probably win the war.

Dorothy Sawyer
Carmichael, California

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To the Editor:

Elliott Abrams, in his otherwise perceptive analysis, persists in seeing the Democratic party as divided into two wings, the New Politics movement and the traditionally Democratic working class. The problem with this depiction is that it assumes that the white working class is more or less unified in its political tendencies.

In fact, there are three wings in the Democratic party. The largely upper-middle-class “Left” wing of the party corresponds to Mr. Abrams’s New Politics forces. But white working-class Democrats are themselves divided. The “Center” of the party is the Kennedy-Johnson-Humphrey wing, the wing which most closely approximates the traditional New Deal Democratic coalition. The “Right” wing of the party is, of course, George Wallace. During the 1972 campaign, when Democrats were asked which candidate they preferred as their party’s nominee, the party rank-and-file divided roughly into thirds, one-third for McGovern, one-third for Humphrey, and one-third for Wallace.

So much attention was paid to the New Politics split that many analysts have ignored the persistent division in the white working-class vote. Humphrey and Wallace competed for this vote in the 1968 election and again in the 1972 primaries. In situations where the economic issue predominated, the blue-collar vote swung to Humphrey. In cases where race was the predominant concern, the blue-collar vote shifted to Wallace.

The political dynamics of the past fifteen years cannot really be understood without first seeing the critical position of the Democratic Center. Center does not mean uncommitted. It was precisely the commitment of the Center that got it into so much trouble in the 60′s. The Kennedy-Johnson-Humphrey Center is committed to the New Deal tradition of liberalism and civil rights; and the cold-war tradition of anti-Communism and interventionism. The crucial point is that the great protest movements of the 60′s, the antiwar movement and the Wallace movement, were directed against the policies of the party’s Center, and not . . . against each other.

The Wallace movement began in 1964 as a protest against the Kennedy-Johnson-Humphrey commitment to civil rights and racial integration. The Wallace movement was not organized to fight the McCarthy-McGovern wing of the party, whom the Wallace people hardly understood and naturally distrusted (and who, in any case, had no real power).

The McCarthy and McGovern movements began in 1968 as a protest against the Kennedy-Johnson-Humphrey commitment to the Vietnam war. The antiwar movement was not organized to fight the Wallace wing of the party, whom the antiwar people hardly understood and naturally distrusted (and who, in any case, had no real power). Indeed, there was a good deal of unrealistic expectation in 1972 that the Wallace wing . . . would gang up with the McGovern wing against the Center.

It is this beleaguered Center of the Democratic party that has experienced a great resurgence since 1972. The new strength of the Center has come about, not because of ideological exhaustion, but rather because the Center continues to represent the Roosevelt tradition of economic relief in hard times. Thus, in the 1974 election, the party regained a considerable amount of support from white working-class voters who had defected in past elections to Wallace, to Nixon, and to law-and-order candidates. The reason, very simply, is that in 1974 economic fear had overtaken racial fear.

Senator Jackson likes to present himself as the candidate of the resurgent Center of the Democratic party. Indeed, Jackson has ties to all three wings of the party—the Left (Israel, a basic commitment to civil rights), to the Center (good on social-welfare and labor issues), and to the Right (anti-busing). But his ties to each wing of the party are moderate, not passionate, in intensity. And passion, not moderation, is what wins primaries.

William Schneider
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

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Elliott Abrams writes:

It is not surprising to find Diane Sawyer unhappy with my analysis of the McGovern disaster, for she refuses to admit that it happened. “Hubert Humphrey did not do that much better in 1968 than McGovern did in 1972,” she tells us. Why, “in fact McGovern did better than Humphrey in many congressional districts. . . .” George McGovern won one state in 1972, while in 1968 Humphrey won 13 even in the face of the 10-million-vote tally that won five states for Wallace. Nixon got 60.7 per cent of the votes in 1972 and beat McGovern by 18 million votes; he got 43.4 per cent of the votes in 1968 and beat Humphrey by 500,000 votes. So much for Miss Sawyer as a historian.

She is no more helpful as a political scientist. She tells us to “subtract organized labor and subtract Wallace votes from Nixon, and you will find that McGovern received the same percentage as Humphrey. . . .” Presumably Miss Sawyer tells us this in defense of McGovern, but it is a rather curious defense of any Democrat to state that his only difficulty was his inability to win working-class voters. It is rather like saying “subtract middle-class votes from Johnson and you will find that Gold-water did as well as Nixon.” Miss Sawyer’s formulation in fact confirms the thesis of my article and the books it discusses: McGovern lost in a landslide because he lost the Democratic party’s base of working-class voters.

Miss Sawyer has learned nothing from our recent political history and would apparently like to repeat it. She wants a party not of “elected officials” but “built from the bottom up” by “anyone who is interested.” But it is a strange theory of democracy that pays more attention to “anyone who is interested” than to the “elected officials” who have won the support of the voters. In fact, McGovern’s real aim in 1972, as Miss Sawyer earlier admits, was “to use the reforms whenever he possibly could to gain delegates.” I did not criticize McGovernites for this goal, as Miss Sawyer apparently believes, but to this day I cannot stomach the reformist, populist rhetoric so often used to camouflage what was nothing more than a simple power play.

Finally, it is worth noting Miss Sawyer’s comments that “McGovern has the right to be a prophet rather than a politician if he so desires,” and that “he has paid the price . . . and evidently he does not think it was too high. . . .” While no one would seek to limit Senator McGovern’s vocational opportunities, Miss Sawyer forgets that the “price” was not personal discomfort for McGovern but the reelection of Richard Nixon. For most Democrats, this price was extravagant, and it is to be hoped that the next nominee will not be a “prophet” making “passionate appeals” for his “dreams,” but a political leader who can unite the party and win the election.

In response to William Schneider’s thoughtful letter. I would note that I differentiated between the McGovern wing of the Democratic party and the party’s working-class segments largely on class lines, and suggested that the interests of the two groups may be very different. Mr. Schneider is certainly correct in noting the additional cleavage among working-class Democrats in 1968 and 1972, as the working-class vote was split, in the primaries, between “centrists” and Wallace. But I do not believe that the working-class Wallace voters have interests at variance with those of the working-class supporters of, say, Humphrey. And I do not believe that most Wallace voters are any longer motivated primarily by racism and are rebelling against the Center of the party. Rather, it seems to me that in recent years Wallace’s appeal has spread in part because he has concentrated on economic rather than racial issues, and in part because the McGovern wing of the party took control of the party from the Center. In any event, I do not see the three-way split as a permanent one, and I believe that the Wallace “movement” will last no longer than does Wallace’s personal appeal.

Mr. Schneider closes by stating that it takes a hard core of passionate supporters, not a broad moderate appeal, to win primaries, and he therefore implies that Senator Jackson will not do well in them. I would only note that, as we learned in 1972, it takes broad moderate appeal to win elections. If it is correct that Senator Jackson has this appeal, then Jackson would be the Democratic party’s strongest candidate in the 1976 election.

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[Since writing “The Democrats’ Dilemma,” Mr. Abrams has become assistant counsel to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations whose chairman is Senator Jackson.—Ed.]

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