Commentary Magazine

Why the Democrats Lost

In 1984 the McGovernization of the Democratic party was completed. “McGovernism” is a poor term, but the most enduring one, for a political temper or movement which began well before Senator George McGovern became its exemplar. The movement was called the “new politics” by its original cheerleaders, and later was called “New-Left liberalism” or “counterculture liberalism” by its critics. But McGovernism is the term that has stuck.

This movement was born in 1968 when the presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy succeeded in persuading thousands of activists from the student Left to take time out from peace marches to work as canvassers in the Democratic primaries. Purists among the campus radicals decried such efforts to “work within the system,” but the vast bulk of their comrades chose to go “neat and clean for Gene.” They discovered that by shedding beards and beads and revolutionary rhetoric, they could in fact constitute a potent force in behalf of their most cherished goals.

First among these goals was the withdrawal of the United States from Vietnam, without conditions and regardless of consequences. More broadly, the movement sought to rid U.S. foreign policy of the doctrine of containment, which it rightly saw as having led the United States into Vietnam, and to reduce the size of the American armed forces so as to make overseas military action less feasible.

The second of its goals was “racial justice,” a concept that went beyond the civil-rights movement’s original objective of equal treatment for each individual irrespective of race or creed. Racial justice, as the movement understood it, entailed granting special advantages to members of certain groups in the hope of compensating for past mistreatment. The list of groups entitled to such advantages expanded steadily. In addition to blacks, it came to include Hispanics, Indians, Eskimos, women, youth, and homosexuals.

The third goal of the movement was “reform.” Reform of the Democratic party, reform of the presidential nominating process, reform of campaign financing, reform of the congressional seniority system, to name but a few. For those whose roots were so recently in the radical world of the student Left, the emphasis on reform made it possible to work within the system without conceding the bona fides of the system. The movement’s own success demonstrated anew the extreme openness and responsiveness of the American political process, but to have conceded that the system possessed these virtues would have called into question the movement’s other goals of diminishing America’s influence in the world and replacing the traditional American principle of individual rights with the principle of compensatory group rights. In addition, “reform” was a useful vehicle for hastening the ascent of new entrants into the political process.

The movement first made use of the reform vehicle at the 1968 Democratic convention in an effort to block the nomination of Hubert Humphrey. The effort failed, but resulted in the creation of a “reform commission” headed by McGovern, who then captured the party’s next presidential nomination. Many wondered aloud whether there was not some connection between McGovern’s stunning upset victory over his Democratic rivals and the fact that he had written the new nominating rules, but there was little in the rules that gave special benefit to the McGovern candidacy. The more important advantage McGovern derived from his role as rule-writer was less tangible. It enabled him to don the mantle of reform. That, together with his stance as the party’s most militant exponent of withdrawal from Vietnam, made his candidacy irresistible in a contest in which almost all his Democratic competition conceded that reform and Vietnam withdrawal were the order of the day.

The other important outcome of the “McGovern reforms” was the adoption by the Democrats of a quota system for the representation of certain minorities, women, and youth. The imposition of the quota rule was greased, in a cyncial precedent that was to be frequently copied, by the inclusion of some Orwellian doubletalk that appeared to renounce quotas. But initiates on all sides of the party’s debates understood that the rules were designed to impose quotas while allowing party leaders to deny to the general public that this had been done. The McGovern staffers who wrote the language referred to it smugly in in-house memos as the “non-quota quotas.”

As effective as McGovern was in the Democratic primaries, his candidacy was a disaster in the general election where the terms of debate were different. After he led the party to its worst defeat in modern history, traditionalist Democratic leaders were naturally eager to take control of the party back from the McGovernites. They succeeded in ousting McGovern’s appointee from the party chairmanship and replacing her with one of their own. But that was to be their last victory. Two solid years of unrelieved factional battles ended in victory for the McGovernites at the party’s 1974 mini-convention.

During those two years, the traditionalist politicians discovered that they had no taste for such internecine battles. They preferred to let the anti-McGovern banner be carried almost solely by the political apparatus of the AFL-CIO. Under the leadership of George Meany, the AFL-CIO was so staunchly opposed to what McGovern represented that it had refused to support him in the general election against its arch-nemesis, Richard Nixon. But a McGovernite faction arose within the labor movement itself. It comprised two giant independent unions outside the AFL-CIO, the automobile workers and the National Education Association, as well as a number of unions within the AFL-CIO (the machinists, the communications workers, the state, county, and municipal employees, and a handful of smaller unions). This faction constituted only a minority within the house of labor, but a large enough one to lead Meany to call in his troops for fear of splitting the labor movement. Following the 1974 mini-convention, at which a labor-led effort to renounce the party’s quota system was humiliatingly trounced, the AFL-CIO gave up trying to act as a counterweight to the McGovernites within the party.



Jimmy Carter, who won the Democratic nomination in 1976, was personally no McGovernite, and yet his administration constituted a large milestone in the McGovernization of the party. Carter won the nomination in part by positioning himself above the fray between McGovernites and anti-McGovernites. He let it be known that before the foreign-policy debate with President Ford he sought briefings both from Paul Warnke and Paul Nitze, the avatars, respectively, of Democratic dovishness and Democratic hawkishness. If Carter tilted at all on the substantive issues, it was toward the anti-McGovern position. In the debate he attacked Ford from the Right on the issues of détente and the Helsinki accords, provoking Ford’s fatal gaffe about Poland. The Washington Post‘s Stephen Rosenfeld wrote during the campaign: “Senator Henry Jackson (D.-Wash.) may have lost the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination but—to judge by the foreign and defense chapters of the Democratic platform . . .—he has largely won the policy war.”

But when Carter took office, Warnke was appointed chief SALT negotiator and head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, while Nitze and his fellow anti-McGovernites in the Coalition for a Democratic Majority (CDM) were systematically excluded from positions in the new administration. CDM Chairman Ben Wattenberg complained that CDM’s was a “missing point of view” in the new Carter team. Conversely, Alan Baron, the sparkplug of the McGovernite faction on the Democratic National Committee, reported gleefully in his newsletter that “George McGovern told friends that he considers the majority of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s appointments to date to be ‘excellent . . . quite close to those I would have made myself. ’ ”

One of Carter’s close long-time associates explained that it was Carter’s style to “campaign conservative and govern liberal,” but the staffing of the Carter administration had more profound implications. Both Carter’s background and his campaign identified him as a centrist Democrat. The appointments to his administration therefore suggested that McGovernism had become the party’s new orthodoxy and that its ideological antithesis—as exemplified by the hawkishness of Senator Jackson and CDM—was taboo.

The ideological assumptions that Carter imbibed from his McGovernite aides had much to do with the debacles—in Iran, in Nicaragua, in Afghanistan, in the United Nations—that brought his administration down. Carter’s reelection defeat was also attributable in large measure to dissatisfaction with his economic policies, which were a cross between traditional Democratic liberalism and his own conservatism in this area, and in some degree to policies on social issues which owed much to McGovernite influence.

In the wake of the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, Senator McGovern himself declared that “the whole liberal agenda has to be rethought.” Walter Mondale said that intellectually the Democrats had been “running on empty,” and that he himself was going to turn to a period of “studying and learning again.” But it is impossible to see what came of all this study and rethinking, for the 1984 campaign revealed that the McGovernism of old was more firmly entrenched as Democratic orthodoxy than ever before.



McGovern’s capture of the Democratic nomination in 1972 had been viewed widely as a coup to which large sections of the party establishment refused to be reconciled. In 1984, by contrast, Mondale represented, as his campaign chairman James Johnson boasted, “the emergent consensus of the Democratic party.” Indeed, the Mondale candidacy was put across by the very groups—elected Democratic officials, the South, and organized labor—that had most forcefully resisted McGovern’s nomination in 1972.

Thus Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, introduced Mondale to its 1983 convention as someone “of that same mold” as “our old comrades in arms, Hubert Humphrey and Scoop Jackson.” What Kirkland presumably meant was that Mondale’s legislative career was characterized by dedication to bread-and-butter liberalism—Keynesian economics and extensive social-welfare programs. Such commitments were indeed common to Humphrey, Jackson, and Mondale. McGovern, on the other hand, though siding with labor on most of these issues, gave them much less emphasis. His pitch was not primarily aimed at the blue-collar audience that was the constituency of bread-and-butter liberalism. It was aimed, rather, at college-educated people, an audience that was then called the “new class” and is now known as the “yuppies.”

But Humphrey and Jackson represented something more than devotion to Keynesianism and social welfare and blue-collar voters. They were also the exemplars of a tradition of tough-minded liberalism that was staunchly anti-Communist in foreign affairs. And it was precisely in this respect that Mondale was different. In style, Mondale, like Humphrey and Jackson, might have been more at ease with unions than with yuppies, and he might have been devoted to bread-and-butter liberalism, but on the issues at the heart of McGovernism—especially foreign and defense policy—Mondale was with the McGovernites.

The record is clear. During Mondale’s twelve years in the Senate, the dovish Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) included 67 foreign-policy votes in its annual legislative scorecards. Mondale voted right, in ADA’s eyes, 64 times and wrong only twice, missing one vote. Henry Jackson, by comparison, voted right, by ADA standards, just 12 times, wrong 50 times, and missed five votes. Conversely, the hawkish American Security Council (ASC) used 40 votes in its annual ratings during Mondale’s Senate years, and found that Mondale voted right once, wrong 37 times, and missed two votes. Jackson voted right by ASC standards 34 times and wrong six times on those same votes.

Mondale’s record on foreign affairs as Vice President was consistent with his votes in the Senate. It can be argued that Mondale should not be held accountable for the largely McGovernite policies of the Carter administration. But we have from Mondale himself a list of the issues on which the positions he took within the councils of the administration differed from the policy ultimately chosen by Carter, and in virtually every instance Mondale’s recommendations were more dovish. He opposed Carter’s initiation of draft registration. He opposed the grain embargo against the Soviet Union. He opposed Carter’s plans for deploying the MX missile.

In addition, the memoirs of Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, reveal a clear pattern of alignment in the Carter administration’s internal debates over foreign policy, pitting Mondale and Vance on the dovish side and Brzezinski and Defense Secretary Harold Brown on the relatively hawkish side. Brzezinski portrays Mondale as having resisted the niggardly increases in defense spending that the Carter administration proposed, and he ventures the guess that had Carter been reelected Mondale would have led an effort to block his reappointment as National Security Adviser on the ground that Brzezinski represented too hard-line an influence within the administration.



In the presidential campaign, in a marked departure from his earlier record, Mondale came out for a 4-5-percent increase in defense spending, but otherwise he ran for the Presidency in a way that was consistent with his record as a Senator and as Vice President. Echoing the code words in which the Carter administration expressed its reluctance to resist America’s adversaries, Mondale told audiences that his goal was to give America “a foreign policy that proves our maturity, not our manhood.” As for national defense, Mondale’s opposition to the MX missile and the B-1 bomber combined with his support for the Midgetman missile and the Stealth bomber prompted Congressman Les Aspin, himself among the deans of American doves, to comment in a jocular but serious tone that “we liberals seem always to support whatever weapons systems are far off in the future and to oppose whatever ones are available today.” Mondale also hammered away at Reagan’s so-called “Star Wars” initiative, running frightening TV ads warning of “killer weapons” in space and neglecting to mention that the only thing these weapons would “kill” would be Soviet ICBM’s. And he attacked Gary Hart for not having supported the nuclear freeze early enough and for having endorsed the so-called “build-down,” an arms-reduction proposal formulated largely by Democrats who recognized that the nuclear-freeze idea was, as Brzezinski put it, a “hoax.”

Mondale assured a CDM gathering that he was innocent of “isolationism or anti-Americanism. . . . We know that America has vital and legitimate interests in the world.” But the rest was all hedging and qualification: “Democrats insist that our interests be sharply defined; publicly supported; congressionally sanctioned; militarily feasible; internationally defensible; open to independent scrutiny; and alert to regional history.”

As a concrete example of what such criteria meant, Mondale opposed U.S. aid to the rebels in Nicaragua, and denounced the rebellion as an “illegal war.” (He later spoke of “quarantining” Nicaragua, a term he did not define, but which, if taken literally, would be no less “illegal” than supplying aid to the rebels.) As for aid to El Salvador, he said that it should be “strictly condition[ed]” not only on bringing to justice the murderers of American churchwomen and union officials and on disbanding “the most lawless and notorious security forces” but also on “accelerating land reform.” He called, too, for a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Honduras, albeit at a slower pace than proposed by Senator Hart.

Reagan’s national-security policies as a whole Mondale denounced for having “ceded the moral high ground to the Russians” by showing too little “respect for the opinions of mankind.” Accordingly, when Reagan ordered the invasion of Grenada, Mondale (though he would later reverse himself on this issue) at first objected that the invasion undermined “our ability to effectively criticize” Soviet actions in Afghanistan, Poland, and elsewhere.

Not that Mondale himself was always happy with criticism of the Soviet Union. He attacked Reagan for calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and for having “told us the Soviet build-up stems from an inherent drive for world domination.” Throughout the campaign, moreover, he spoke of the interruption in arms-control negotiations—the effect of a unilateral walkout by the Soviet Union—in terms that blamed Reagan and exonerated the Soviets. And on one occasion he warned against the danger of “becoming like our enemies,” while his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, echoing this thought, declared that the controversial primer supplied by the CIA to the Nicaraguan rebels was “in the spirit of Stalin.”



On the issue of racial justice, too, Mondale’s stance was unmistakably in the McGovernite tradition. The draft of the Democratic platform, hammered out under the leadership of Geraldine Ferraro, rejected racial quotas but strongly endorsed a watered-down version of quotas, “goals and timetables,” to redress racial inequality.

This, however, was not enough to satisfy Jesse Jackson and his supporters, who presented the Democratic convention with an amendment implicitly (if not altogether explicitly) endorsing the use of quotas. Some of Mondale’s people urged him to muster his delegates to defeat Jackson’s amendment on the floor, and thereby to dramatize the distance between his own views and those of Jesse Jackson. Instead, Mondale instructed his representatives to negotiate a compromise with the Jackson forces.

In the end, the two sides agreed on an amendment endorsing the “use of affirmative action goals, timetables, and other verifiable measures.” The key words here were “other verifiable measures,” a phrase of indeterminate meaning that each side was free to interpret its own way. Jackson’s representative, Congressman Walter Fauntroy, said that the amendment “means quotas, without using the word.” Mondale’s representative, Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski, said that “ ‘verifiable measures’ does not mean quotas.” New York’s Mayor Koch, a supporter of Mondale and an opponent of quotas, acknowledged, according to the Washington Post, that the language did in effect mean quotas, but said he was reassured by Mondale’s personal statements against quotas.

If this left any ambiguity about the direction that a Mondale-Ferraro administration would have taken on the quota issue, it was cleared up by Mondale’s oft-repeated campaign pledge to undo the changes made by Reagan in the membership of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. For these changes, and the controversy that they evoked, revolved precisely around the issue of quotas. The Civil Rights Commission that Reagan inherited from President Carter stood squarely in favor of quotas “when quotas are needed to make equal opportunity a reality for members of historically excluded groups.”

Reagan sought to replace these quota-oriented commissioners with others, mostly Democrats, who opposed quotas but who had clear records of support for civil rights. As a result, congressional opponents of Reagan’s appointees focused neither on their individual records nor on defending quotas, which they knew to be unpopular. They focused instead on the charge that Reagan had undermined the independence of the Commission by seeking to bring it into line with his own policy preferences. This criticism led to a compromise in which some of Reagan’s appointees were approved in exchange for changes in the law designed to assure the future independence of the Commission. Thus, it could not be argued that the goal of Mondale’s campaign pledge was to preserve the Commission’s independence, which was no longer in jeopardy except at his own hand. His goal was simply to restore the philosophical composition of the pre-Reagan, pro-quota Commission. The Mondale ticket’s identification with that philosophy was underscored when Blandina Cardenas Ramirez, one of the pro-quota holdovers from the old Commission, was appointed “political coordinator” of the Ferraro campaign.

In addition to the murky language of the Democratic platform and Mondale’s warm embrace of the quota advocates on the Civil Rights Commission, there were still other reasons to take Mondale’s anti-quota protestations at less than face value. Although he had never been a zealot on the third pillar of McGovernism—“reform”—Mondale acquiesced in the demand of Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson for the creation of a Fairness Commission to reform the party once again. The convention resolution creating the Fairness Commission stipulated that: “The Commission shall consist of at least 50 members equally divided between men and women, and shall include fair and equitable participation of Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Asian/Pacifics, women, and persons of all sexual preference [sic] consistent with their proportional representation in the party.” The mandate of the Fairness Commission was precisely to assure “the full participation in the party process” of the exact same list of groups enumerated above. And it was directed to “examine the question of assured percentages of various disadvantaged groups in the composition of state delegations by racial, ethnic, and other categories with the objective of making allocations similar to those now accorded on the basis of gender” (emphasis added).

Since the allocations “now accorded on the basis of gender” are strict quotas, 1984 left the Mondale-led Democrats committed to embarking not only on what promised to be their most esoteric adventure in party reform ever, but also more committed to quotas than ever.



The nomination of Walter Mondale was by no means the only measure of the triumph of McGovernism in the 1984 Democratic campaign. Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson, the two other contenders for the Democratic nomination whose campaigns prospered sufficiently to sustain their candidacies until the national convention, stood even more firmly than Mondale in the McGovernite tradition. Both, for example, openly and explicitly endorsed quotas. But it was on issues of foreign policy that their McGovernism was most visible.

George McGovern has a propensity to see the best in Communist regimes. In his autobiography, for example, he writes that “Castro does not seem to be a dictator for his own sake, but a convinced revolutionary who is popular among his own people.” When Soviet Premier Andropov died last year, McGovern said: “It is a modern tragedy that one of the Soviet Union’s most intelligent and realistic leaders has served and died during the administration of the most ill-informed and dangerous man ever to occupy the White House.” Mondale, for all his dovishness, has never shared sentiments like these. But Jesse Jackson certainly has.

Speaking in Cuba during the election campaign, Jackson delivered this peroration: “Long live Castro. Long live Martin Luther King. Long live Che Guevara. Long live our cry of freedom. Our time has come.” He then accompanied Castro to church where the two sang, “We Shall Overcome.” On other occasions he declared that the Sandinista government of Nicaragua was “on the right side of history,” and that the United States had a foreign policy which “puts us on the wrong side of history.” Describing the government of Salvadoran President Duarte as “another puppet regime” installed through a “sham of an election,” he demanded that Duarte negotiate with the leftist guerrillas, but opposed similar negotiations between the Sandinistas and the rebels in Nicaragua.

As for Gary Hart, he began his political career as the manager of George McGovern’s 1972 campaign, and his 1984 campaign sounded a distinct echo of McGovern’s old slogan, “Come Home America.” He advocated a complete cutoff of U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan rebels and to the government of El Salvador and a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Honduras. When Mondale said that he would put some conditions on withdrawal from Honduras, Hart accused him of having failed to “learn the . . . lesson of Vietnam.” There was indeed much in the tone of Hart’s statements about Central America that was reminiscent of the hyperbole of the Vietnam era. Hart accused President Reagan of “sending the sons of minorities and working people to serve as bodyguards for dictators” and he accused Walter Mondale of being unwilling to stop this. He warned that failure to follow his prescription for withdrawal from Central America would lead to the loss of “hundreds of thousands of American lives.”

Throughout his Senate career, Hart, sensitive about his identification with McGovern, had presented himself as less a dove than a military reformer, even underscoring this by voting for some contested defense increases. The centerpiece of his reform proposals was his opposition to requests by the navy for additional nuclear aircraft carriers. Hart’s alternative was to build a large number of smaller carriers. A large number of carriers, he explained, was “vital for effective support of diplomacy,” especially in the Third World. But given the vehemence with which Hart campaigned in 1984 against any possible use of force by the United States in Central America or the Persian Gulf, and given, too, that it is hard to think of many Third World areas more vital to U.S. security than these, one is bound to wonder whether the real mission of Hart’s fleet of mini-carriers was not to sink the navy’s request for more nuclear carriers.

The roster of Democratic candidates in 1984 not only included many McGovernites, it also included McGovern himself. His candidacy never got very far, but it did win him a chorus of praise as “the conscience” of the party. This rankled Jesse Jackson, who felt that he was the “conscience” of the party. The two got into a bit of a spat over whose claim to this title was more compelling, but the claim of neither man was challenged by anyone else, except for a few who were angered by Jackson’s anti-Semitic utterances. It was as if the party as a whole were conceding that its heart lay with McGovern and Jackson, while its head told it to be somewhat more moderate for the sake of the electorate.



If these events on the left wing of the Democratic spectrum revealed much about the state of the party, equally important symptoms could be found elsewhere on the spectrum. Two well-respected Democrats, Senators John Glenn and Ernest Hollings, both qualified to represent the Henry Jackson-John Kennedy-Harry Truman legacy, entered the Democratic lists. Yet rather than carry their own clear records into the primaries in the hopes of carving out a moderate Democratic constituency, both ran, implausibly and ineffectively, as “peace” candidates, Glenn stressing his devotion to a nuclear freeze and Hollings his opposition to the MX and his determination that defense spending not be spared from budget cuts.

The behavior of Glenn and Hollings lent weight to the argument made by Fred Barnes in the American Spectator that the “Jackson wing” of the party had died. Death is a poor metaphor in such circumstances because there are no limits to the number of lives a political tendency may have. The Jackson wing may yet fly again. But there is no doubt that Barnes put his finger on a real change. Henry Jackson, the flesh-and-blood leader and the inspiration of the Jackson wing, did die. And Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, once the acknowledged heir to the Jackson legacy, spurned the inheritance. It is, of course, possible to exaggerate the change in Moynihan, whose stance is still easily distinguishable from that of the flock of Democratic doves on Capitol Hill. But as is clear from his positions on such issues as the MX and Grenada, Moynihan has shifted, and the change was well captured by the New Republic‘s Morton Kondracke when he wrote:

The new Moynihan seems to put primary emphasis on the American government’s obeying rules, rather than gaining geopolitical advantages in the struggle of systems that the old Moynihan considered the central concern of the contemporary world.

The most profound problem for the Jackson wing, however, has been the one least commented on—the shift within the AFL-CIO. The original clash between McGovernism and old-style liberalism reflected something of a class division, pitting the college-educated “new class” against blue-collar workers. Labor was hawkish, culturally conservative, and allergic to racial quotas of which the building-trades unions were among the first targets. McGovernites, on the other hand, tended to look down their noses at labor as benighted and out-of-date. For a few years the labor movement stood as the bulwark of anti-McGovernism within the Democratic party. It provided, for example, the bulk of the original support for the Coalition for a Democratic Majority.

But the McGovernites came to realize that it was wiser to woo than to ridicule labor. And the labor movement, feeling itself economically on the defensive since the beginning of the 1970’s, came to feel that it could not afford to alienate potential allies in the liberal camp. It was, in any event, never well-suited to fighting ideological battles other than ones based on its own direct interests. More important, the McGovernite faction within the labor leadership had grown steadily as a younger generation replaced those leaders who had learned their hawkishness first-hand, battling the Communists for control of the unions in the immediate postwar years.

Lane Kirkland is every bit the hawk that his predecessor, George Meany, was. Indeed, if there is one man in public life today who best embodies the Henry Jackson tradition, it is Kirkland. But of the ten largest unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO, at least half are led by men ideologically aligned with the party’s McGovernites. These McGovernites are far from having reversed the main tenets of labor’s traditional anti-Communism, but they have begun to soften labor’s hawkishness. The AFL-CIO now calls for cuts in defense spending and advocates rather stringent conditions on aid to El Salvador. And on some other issues labor has moved as well. It is outspoken on behalf of “comparable worth” and it joined Mondale in demanding reinstatement of the pro-quota members of the Civil Rights Commission.

Whatever Kirkland’s personal views, his first worry as president of the federation is to preserve the movement’s unity. He and those other labor leaders who share his attitudes may well be able to keep the labor movement from diverging too far from the Meany tradition in the stands it adopts on issues and in the help it gives to free unions around the world. But there is little prospect that the AFL-CIO will soon again be counted in the Henry Jackson wing of the Democratic party.



The current temper of the Democratic party was vividly displayed at the party’s national convention in San Francisco. Among the delegates, there were more labor-union members and elected officials—once seen as the hope of party centrists—than ever before. And the proportion of women and minority-group members came closer than ever before to a perfect approximation of their proportions among Democratic voters. Nevertheless, on substantive issues, the delegates diverged farther from the Democratic electorate than ever before.

According to a survey by the New York Times, 50 percent of the delegates described themselves as liberals, 42 percent as moderates, and 5 percent as conservatives. Among Democratic voters, according to the then most current Times poll, 27 percent listed themselves as liberals, 44 percent as moderates, and 23 percent as conservatives.

On specific issues, when asked by the Washington Post whether “The United States should take all steps, including the use of force, to prevent the spread of Communism,” only 22 percent of the Democratic delegates responded affirmatively, while 63 percent of Democratic voters said yes. Only 26 percent of the delegates, as against 55 percent of Democratic voters, answered yes when asked whether the military draft should be reinstated. Nine percent of the delegates, as compared to 46 percent of the Democratic voters, said they favored a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion. Ninety-one percent of the delegates, as against 63 percent of Democratic voters, favored passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Fifty-three percent of the delegates and only 19 percent of Democratic voters favored an immediate tax increase.

Interestingly, the delegates were not more liberal than Democratic voters on such traditional bread-and-butter issues as national-health insurance or government jobs programs, and by a 20-percentage-point margin the delegates were less apt than Democratic voters to agree with the proposition that “businessmen have too much power for the good of the country.” In short, while the delegates were markedly more liberal than Democratic voters, the difference could be traced to the McGovern issues, not the Franklin Roosevelt issues.

The principal dynamic of the convention was the string of concessions made by Mondale to one Democratic group after another for the sake of party unity. The platform had already been drafted under Geraldine Ferraro’s leadership with an eye to meeting the demands of as many interest groups as possible. In addition to the usual groups, new ones—Japanese-Americans, Micronesians, and Indians, for example—had won specific concessions, as had the homosexual community which was, according to the Washington Post, “one of the big winners” in the platform-drafting process.

But in San Francisco more was demanded. So Mondale yielded to Hart by including a plank in the platform that would bar the use of American force under almost any circumstances except to repel an invasion. He yielded to Jesse Jackson on quotas. He yielded to Hart and Jackson together on creating the Fairness Commission. He yielded to the Hispanic caucus on the subject of immigration, and to the National Organization for Women on his choice of a running mate. Geraldine Ferraro, said the New York Times aptly, was “the transcendent symbol of this Democratic gathering.” Little wonder that the polls came to show that Mondale was not perceived as a “strong leader.”

Curiously, there was one group that the Democrats in San Francisco refused to accommodate—Jews. In modern times the party had been anything but stinting in its solicitude for Jews. In fact, Democratic platforms had frequently set a line that was more undeviatingly pro-Israel than any Democratic administration would be likely to follow. And in the New York primary in 1984, Hart and Mondale had clashed frequently over the question of who was more fervent in his wish to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But in San Francisco, when it was proposed that a plank condemning anti-Semitism be added to the platform, Mondale refused.

The proposed plank declared simply that the party “repudiate[s] and completely dissociate[s] itself from people who promote all forms of hatred, bigotry, racism, and anti-Semitism.” It was pretty weak tea when read against a plank already in the platform concerning the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi party which called for prosecution of these groups by state, local, and federal authorities and the adoption of additional laws against them. But the anti-Semitism plank was attacked by Jesse Jackson’s campaign manager, Arnold Pinckney, as “inappropriate” and “unnecessary.” Congressman Mickey Leland (D.-Texas), another Jackson delegate, called the amendment “very divisive.” They felt that it was aimed at Jackson and Louis Farrakhan, which, in a sense, it was, but Jackson could easily enough have diverted any critical implication pointing his way merely by strongly endorsing the amendment. That he refused to do so was revealing.

Equally revealing was Mondale’s refusal to push the amendment over Jackson’s objections. A compromise was finally reached between the Mondale camp and Jewish leaders that the amendment would be left out of the platform, but adopted as a resolution by the Democratic National Committee immediately after the convention. But the party leadership reneged even on this, and instead of a resolution, party chairman Charles Manatt merely read a statement decrying “bigotry and prejudice.” When this brought protests from Jewish leaders, the DNC’s executive committee finally adopted the anti-Semitism statement by telephone poll weeks later.



Although Mondale found it difficult to resist the demands of any group other than Jews, he showed some awareness of the need to reach out to voters who were not well represented at the convention. Unlike the convention’s other featured speakers, Mondale pitched part of his acceptance speech toward the political Center, leading David Broder of the Washington Post to observe that “This had to be the first convention where Fritz Mondale came on as the most moderate spotlighted spokesman in the Democratic party.” But Mondale’s centrism had a hollow ring. “Look at our platform,” he said. “There are no defense cuts that weaken our security; no business taxes that weaken our economy; no laundry lists that raid our treasury.” But any voter who did plow his way through that 58-page document would have found lots of defense cuts, large increases in business taxes, and dozens of proposed new federal programs. Whether these would have weakened our security or economy or raided our treasury is a matter of judgment.

Mondale’s choice of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate was, of course, a prime example of catering to special interests, but it was also an attempt to reach out to the broader electorate. Thus Congressman Tony Coelho of the Democratic campaign committee predicted that “A lot of ethnic Catholic Democrats around the country will identify with her and her background.” And when Mondale first presented Geraldine Ferraro to the press, he described her as someone who had “worked hard for everything that she has achieved,” someone with “a strong family life, deep religious conviction,” and a model for “working Americans of average income.”

Yet the real Geraldine Ferraro was a multimillionaire feminist who had left her two teenagers and her twelve-year-old daughter in Queens while she went to Washington from Mondays through Fridays to serve in Congress. The Washington Post described her as “an outspoken leader of the feminist movement.” And Gloria Steinem exulted that the real victory was not in the selection of a woman, but in the selection of a woman with Geraldine Ferraro’s politics. “It doesn’t help to have them look like us and act like them,” she told a women’s gathering at the convention.

Despite all the talk about ethnics, Catholics, Italians, immigrants, and working people, Geraldine Ferraro really spoke for and to only one constituency in addition to feminists. That constituency was the “peace” movement. The Washington Post observed that “she and running mate Walter F. Mondale paradoxically seek to portray themselves as peace candidates despite the fact that the United States is not at war.” One Post reporter wrote that “Ferraro cast the election as a referendum on arms control,” while another said that “Ferraro has made the ‘war-and-peace issue’ the centerpiece of her candidacy.” The New York Times commented that arms control was “her favorite issue” and she was several times quoted as saying that all other issues “pale by comparison.”

The hollow symbolism of the Ferraro nomination backfired on the Democrats. The New York Times/CBS exit poll showed that Italian-Americans, a group that ordinarily leans toward the Democrats, voted the Reagan ticket by 57 to 42 percent, a ratio almost identical to that of the rest of the population. Catholics and blue-collar workers, both strongly Democratic constituencies to which Geraldine Ferraro was supposed to have appealed, also went for the Reagan ticket by margins of 11 and 8 percentage points, respectively.

Geraldine Ferraro’s two genuine constituencies, feminists and supporters of the nuclear freeze, on the other hand, preferred the Mondale ticket. The Washington Post/ABC exit poll found that 16 percent of all voters said that the nuclear freeze was a significant issue in determining their votes, and of these, 64 percent voted for Mondale-Ferraro. It also found that among female voters 11 percent described themselves as strong feminists and 77 percent of these voted for Mondale-Ferraro. But the same exit poll also found that of the 89 percent of women voters who did not view themselves as strong feminists, 60 percent voted for Reagan.

All in all, women gave the Reagan ticket a large majority of their votes, and, strikingly, the “gender gap” was narrower in 1984 than it had been in 1980. Approximately half the voters said that Geraldine Ferraro’s presence on the ticket had not affected their choice, but of those who said they had been affected, 26 percent reported that it had made them less inclined to vote for Mondale, while 16 percent said it had made them more inclined. Perhaps the most arresting statistic of all: among women voters who said they were affected by Geraldine Ferraro’s presence on the ballot, 24 percent said it had made them less inclined to vote for Mondale, while 19 percent said the contrary.



The most celebrated moment at the Democratic convention was the keynote speech delivered by New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Cuomo’s superior delivery was widely hailed and earned him, said Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales, “claim to the title, Son of the Great Communicator.” But it was Cuomo’s words as much as his style that excited the Democrats. By repeatedly using the word “family,” Cuomo showed, so they felt, how Democrats could recapture ground lost to the Republicans. Democratic campaign chairman Tony Coelho called the speech “fabulous” and added: “We’ve got to get the floating voters who went Republican in 1980. We need a message that the Democratic party is a home for them, and that’s what Cuomo is saying.”

But the great enthusiasm for Cuomo’s speech only reflected the Democrats’ penchant for hollow rhetoric. The Democrats seemed to believe that they had found in a single word the talisman that would protect them from the consequences of the wide discrepancy between their views and those of most voters. The irony was that aside from its invocations of the word, “family,” Cuomo’s speech was among the most radical given at the convention.

On foreign affairs, Cuomo accused Reagan, but not the Soviets, of “macho intransigence.” He accused Reagan, but not the Soviets, of “escalating to a frenzy the nuclear arms race.” He accused Reagan, but not the Soviets, of indulging in “incendiary rhetoric.” He accused Reagan, but not the Soviets who walked out of the arms negotiations, of “refusing to talk peace.” He said falsely of the United States that: “We give monies to Latin American governments that murder nuns, and then lie about it.” And he congratulated himself and other nuclear-freeze advocates for understanding: “That peace is better than war because life is better than death.”

On domestic policy, Cuomo spoke of America as being “A Tale of Two Cities,” one rich and one poor. He said America under the Republicans was divided “into the lucky and the left-out, the royalty and the rabble.” There were one or two passing references to the “middle class,” but the picture of America that Cuomo spent hundreds of words painting was a society consisting only of the haute bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat.

Cuomo was at his most radical precisely at the point where he brought his “family” theme to its climax and outlined what the commentators called his “vision of America”:

We believe in a single fundamental idea that describes better than most textbooks and any speech what a proper government should be. The idea of family. Mutuality. The sharing of benefits and burdens for the good of all. Feeling one another’s pain. Sharing one another’s blessings. . . . We believe we must be the family of America, recognizing that at the heart of the matter we are bound one to another, that the problems of a retired schoolteacher in Duluth are our problems. That the future of the child in Buffalo is our future. The struggle of a disabled man in Boston to survive, to live decently, is our struggle. The hunger of a woman in Little Rock, our hunger.

Cuomo, in short, was proposing to take us back to a politics that does not respect the essential differences between a family and a nation, that does not appreciate that the obligations and bonds which exist among members of a family are not the same as those which exist among the members of a polity. Aristotle argued that a society that bars us from loving our own children more than others is less likely to make us love all than to make us love none. But modern experience has taught us that there is a yet more appalling consequence to the confusion of polity and family, and that is the totalitarian state. We do, to be sure, owe important obligations to our fellow citizens, but the moment we allow or demand the kind of intrusion into one another’s lives that we readily expect with members of our families, we have begun down a path where freedom is not likely to endure.

That a speech as extreme as Cuomo’s in substance could be taken as pointing the party’s way back to the mainstream showed something about how far the party had come. The Washington Post quoted an aide to House Speaker Tip O’Neill as saying that the so-called “super-delegates”—elected officials granted automatic delegate status—“played a moderating role that curbed ideological excesses” at the convention. If the effects of that “moderating role” were less than self-evident, it may have been because the Democratic Congressmen who made up the bulk of the super-delegates were themselves none too moderate. McGovernism had gained sway not only among the Democrats as a presidential party but also to a significant degree among Democrats in Congress.



Congressional Quarterly reported last year on the ideological transformation of the House Democratic caucus. “A decade ago,” it said, “candidates for House Democratic leadership had to be careful not to sound too liberal. Today, they cannot afford to sound too conservative.” In particular, observed Congressional Quarterly: “It is no longer considered radical or even adventurous for rank-and-file Democrats from Eastern and Midwestern districts to vote against authorizing money for defense. It is standard practice.”

The House Democrats are not only out to cut defense, they are also out to reduce the presence of American power abroad. They clamored for the withdrawal of American marines from Lebanon. They succeeded in cutting off U.S. aid to the rebels in Nicaragua. They came within four votes of putting conditions on aid to El Salvador so stringent as almost surely to have led to a cessation of aid—and this was after the election of President Duarte. Northern Democrats voted 167 to 7 for the more stringent conditions which were defeated only because Jim Wright, at some risk to his standing in the caucus, led a majority of Southern Democrats in supporting an alternative amendment providing for more lenient conditions. The victory of the more lenient conditions so irked the Northern Democrats that by a margin of 129 to 44 they voted against final passage of the entire foreign-aid bill, even though the largest item in the bill was aid to Israel, which most of them favored.

The same symptoms of McGovernism were evident among House Democrats on racial issues. When the Reagan administration and the Congress reached a compromise in their dispute over the composition of the Civil Rights Commission, the House and Senate Democrats each got to appoint one commissioner. They used this authority respectively to reappoint Mary Frances Berry and Blandina Cardenas Ramirez, both advocates of racial quotas.

Dr. Berry’s appointment was especially striking in light of the bizarre opinions voiced in her 1982 book, Long Memory: The Black Experience in America. According to Dr. Berry, “Beginning in the 1960’s, federal and local agencies supported . . . campaigns to eliminate black Americans” because the political climate made it “relatively easy for social planners to promote genocide.” Conversely, referring back to the time of Stalin’s rule, she said that “blacks remained cool to the Communists” because, “subjected to a massive barrage of propaganda from the American news media, few of them knew of Russia’s constitutional safeguards for minorities, the extent of equal opportunity, or the equal provision of social services to its citizens.” That views such as these did not disqualify someone from appointment as overseer of the nation’s civil-rights practices was an indication of the state of things among congressional Democrats.

The appointment of Mary Berry was far from the only occasion on which some House Democrats showed themselves to have grown tolerant of the views of the far Left. The New York Times reported not long ago that House Speaker Tip O’Neill “depends on the activist nuns and priests to help shape his views on Central America,” and commented that “the fervor of Mr. O’Neill’s criticisms” of Reagan-administration policy toward the area is “grounded in . . . the theology of liberation” imbibed from these clerics. The Times mentioned the Maryknoll Order and its leader in Central America, Sister Peggy Healy, as among those with greatest influence on the Speaker. Yet many Maryknoll members, including Sister Healy, who worked for some years at the Washington Office on Latin America, are well known for their activism in support of the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

In similar fashion, when Congressman Michael Barnes, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Latin America, led 33 House members in a suit last year against President Reagan contesting the pocket veto of a bill restricting aid to El Salvador, they retained as their lawyer Michael Ratner, the immediate past president of the National Lawyers Guild and an outspoken advocate of “solidarity” with Central American revolutionaries.

Or again, a handful of House Democrats have taken part in the activities within the United States of the World Peace Council, a barely disguised international Soviet-front organization whose president, Romesh Chandra, is a member of the Central Committee of the Communist party of India and a recipient of the USSR’s Lenin Peace Prize. One of the Democrats in question is Congressman Ron Dellums, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Military Construction (a post he used, when the Bishop government was in power in Grenada, to prepare a report, which he first submitted to the Bishop government itself for editing, denying that the new airport then being built by Cubans in Grenada had any military purpose). Another Democrat who has worked with the World Peace Council is Don Edwards. Congressman Edwards chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the FBI, among whose responsibilities it is to keep tabs on groups like the World Peace Council.

As a final example, early last year Congressman Tom Harkin, since elected to the Senate from Iowa, asked a gathering of the radical Institute for Policy Studies, whose publications often speak favorably of Communist regimes and movements, to supply him with the names of individuals he could recommend for positions in the foreign-policy branches of a Mondale administration. Harkin could not have been unaware of IPS’s stands, since he had been actively involved with the group for years.

More examples of this kind could be cited, but what do they show? Surely few if any Congressmen have become pro-Communist. But many House Democrats have become so fixated on combating what they see as the excesses of anti-Communist internationalism that they have grown undiscriminating about their alliances on the Left. This is one more measure of how McGovernized, at least on international issues, they have become.



Politicians and commentators who share Mondale’s views have understandably searched for explanations of his defeat that would not attribute it to voter rejection of these views. Some blame Mondale himself, saying that he was a poor candidate or a poor television performer. Yet Mondale won the presidential nomination in the primaries, beating the best his party had to offer. And though he may not have had any special flair for television, he was more articulate, better able to think on his feet, than most of the nominees from either party in the last several presidential races. He was knowledgeable on the issues, and he had no obvious quirks or skeletons in his closet.

Others blame voter “greed” for Reagan’s popularity, pointing to polls showing high correlations between those who said they favored Reagan and those who believed that they would be personally better off if he were reelected. But surely this complaint is nothing more than the most ingenious new formulation of “new-class” contempt for the common man. Are people supposed to vote for the candidate under whom they expect to be worse off? As the noted survey analyst William Schneider wrote recently in the New Republic:

Yes, people who felt better off voted for the incumbent and those who felt worse off voted for the challenger. But that was no more true this year than in 1980, or in 1976, or in any previous election. Moreover, voters’ assessment of the nation’s economy had a stronger and more consistent impact on their vote than their evaluation of their own personal well-being. People who felt that the country was beginning a long-term recovery voted for Reagan by a wide margin, no matter how they themselves had fared.

So much for the “greed” factor.

Some commentators attributed the victory to Reagan’s personal popularity which, they said, had little to do with his policies. Yet a year into Reagan’s first term, Patrick Caddell, interpreting the results of a poll taken for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, observed, “[Reagan] may be viewed as likable and genial and nice, but that doesn’t translate into political popularity.” According to Burns Roper in the Fall 1983 issue of Public Opinion Quarterly, Reagan’s job-approval rating has consistently been a little higher than his personal-approval rating. It has repeatedly been claimed that more voters approved of Reagan than agreed with his policies. But in the most recent issue of Public Opinion Quarterly, William Adams presents a list of important issues on which the number of voters who agreed with Reagan is even higher than the number who voted for him.

Nor is it true that the Republicans ran a particularly good campaign in 1984. The Republican convention, except for the speech by Jeane Kirkpatrick, fell flat. A little-known Hispanic woman was designated “keynote speaker,” thereby undermining the Republicans’ moral standing to criticize the Democrats on the quota issue. Barry Goldwater defended extremism and revealed an isolationist, unpatriotic streak by blaming the Democrats for all of America’s modern wars. And Reagan gave one of the worst speeches of his Presidency. Accordingly, the polls showed that the convention failed to give the party the boost that conventions usually do.

Reagan was widely judged to have lost his first debate with Mondale, but was declared the winner of the second debate largely on the strength of his having dispelled the “age issue” with a clever one-liner. But as Morton Kondracke pointed out in the New Republic, Reagan’s rambling and incoherent closing statement in the second debate did indeed raise more questions—or should have—than his earlier clever quip had answered.

The economic news remained good throughout the campaign, but not all the news favored the Republicans. The bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut and the story of the “primer” supplied by the CIA to the Nicaraguan rebels were breaks for the Democrats, and were not handled adroitly by Reagan and his colleagues.

But the Washington Post found that neither these events, nor the debates, nor anything that happened throughout the entire fall had any real impact on the race—that, in effect, the campaign was over the moment it began. Only 10 percent of the voters changed their minds during the course of the fall, the Post found, and these divided evenly between those who switched to Reagan and those who switched to Mondale. And USA Today reported that its monthly polling found astonishing continuity in voter response from February on.



With peace and prosperity in the land, Reagan might have been unbeatable in 1984, but his landslide was something the Democrats brought on themselves. It was, in popular vote, the biggest Republican victory since the 1920’s, except of course for the year the Democrats nominated George McGovern. And it was the biggest electoral-vote landslide ever. The message for the Democrats was simple: what they were selling, the voters were not buying.

The Democrats were offering peace and fairness. But what the McGovernized Democrats mean by peace is military weakness and a retreat from global responsibility. The voters want peace—they fear war in Central America and they want arms control with the Soviets. But polls show that they fear Communism in Central America even more and they want firmness in dealing with the Soviets. They seem to understand better than the Democrats that strength and resolution are the best ways to attain peace.

What the McGovernized Democrats mean by “fairness” is more complex. In part it takes in economic policy, and here the voters are of two minds. To the extent that it means making the rich pay their fair share, and doubting that the Republicans will make them do so, the voters agree. To the extent that it means taxing the middle class to provide more benefits to the poor, the voters disagree.

But Democratic “fairness” also takes in something else—quotas and preferential treatment for women and accredited minorities. It means, in short, discrimination against white males. Indeed, the only way a white male can get equal treatment within the Democratic party today is to declare himself a homosexual or perhaps a devotee of some other unconventional “sexual preference.” Of course the average voter does not know about the Fairness Commission, but he gets the message about what the Democrats mean by fairness. Can it be an accident that white males favored the Republicans by a margin of 68 to 31 percent?

What about the Democratic success in races for the House of Representatives? It was no doubt the result of many factors, one of which surely was that some voters who voted for Reagan also wanted some insurance against the danger that he would dismantle Social Security or cut other basic welfare programs beyond the point that they would like. In addition, congressional races are run largely on local issues and constituency services, and incumbents are hard to unseat. (Even so, in races in which both parties fielded candidates, Republicans received a combined total of 54 percent of the vote, according to Democratic pollster William Hamilton.) It is also easier to fudge positions on national issues in a congressional or even a Senate race than in a presidential campaign. Congressman Harkin, one of the most McGovernite members of the House, ran one TV ad in his successful race for the Senate accusing his conservative Republican opponent of being a “big spender” and another ad which showed Harkin piloting a warplane and speaking of his military service. When a Harkin campaign consultant screened this ad for a post-election meeting of the American Association of Political Consultants, he commented jokingly: “That’s what you do if you never vote for a defense bill.”



If the McGovernization of the Democratic party is complete, is it irreversible? Surely there is no law that says it is. What with the Fairness Commission and all, the party seems poised to wander farther Left in opposition, as has the British Labor party. But perhaps the election of 1984 will prove more sobering than did the 1972 election, and perhaps the Henry Jackson wing will find new leaders and sources of strength. The greatest hope for de-McGovernization, ironically, would seem to lie in the regime of “reform” that McGovernism itself has imposed upon the party. There is no longer a party machine of any consequence, and the presidential nomination is decided almost entirely in the primaries. There is no inherent reason why a very different kind of Democrat—say, a Senator Sam Nunn—could not enter the primaries in 1988 and sweep the party before him.

What seems certain is that those Democrats who want to change their party’s course will not succeed merely by arguing that its present direction is imprudent. After 1972, Democrats all realized, even if they would not admit, that McGovernism was imprudent, and this was the point on which its party opponents—save for a few intellectuals around CDM—focused. But the McGovernites argued that what they stood for was right and just. In the debates that ensued, the forces of conviction won out over the forces of prudence every time. If McGovernism is to be turned back today, it will only be by Democrats who have the conviction and the courage to challenge its substantive tenets.

To be sure, even if the party does not turn back from McGovernism, the exigencies of the business cycle and world events, or the ups and downs of the Republicans, could sooner or later bring the Democrats back to the White House. But whether or not the McGovernization of the Democrats is fatal to the party, it is bad for the country. At the heart of McGovernism lies a deep ambivalence about the value of the American experience, about the worth of American institutions. As Walter Mondale once put it, the United States “is not as compassionate, as understanding, as sensitive as we think we are. Our priorities are screwy; our priorities are pretty close to being obscene.” That is why McGovernism is so reluctant to see American influence wielded in the world, and why it is so willing to discard the American principle of individual rights at home. It cannot be healthy for the body politic that one of our two major parties should be in thrall to such attitudes as these.



About the Author

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is working on a book about Arab and Muslim democrats.

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