The incumbent Republican president, a polarizing figure who lived in New York City prior to being elected, is absolutely despised by the establishment and far from loved by the country as a whole. He had, after all, won the White House with well less than 50 percent of the popular vote four years before, and his approval rating has never gotten very high.
Thus the Republican seems doomed to lose his reelection bid to an East Coast Democratic senator, a man of moderate mien who has run as a vice-presidential candidate—and who is leading in the early polls.
The Democratic frontrunner seems liberal enough to please some liberals, and moderate enough to please most moderates. And again, crucially for his candidacy’s rationale, the national polls show him ahead of the GOP incumbent.
Yet then come…events. It so happens that the Democratic frontrunner stumbles on the campaign trail, proving himself not to be as strong as once thought. In the meantime, the Democratic Party moves way to the left, distancing itself from the middle—and from middle-of-the-road candidates.
Moreover, that leftward lurch is punctuated by televised violence in the streets committed by far-left-wingers. Notably, the liberal Democratic establishment, intimidated by this surging Left, seems tongue-tied about any criticism of the gangster violence that fair-minded Americans can see and deplore.
So it turns out that the Democratic frontrunner, unable to navigate these sudden rapids, is driven from the race, and the party’s presidential nomination goes to a less regarded figure on the Left. Therefore, to the horror of many, the incumbent Republican is reelected, despite deep concerns about his honesty and ethics.
Whoa! How could this author possibly know what will happen next year? It’s too early to foretell the fate of President Donald Trump in 2020. And the same holds true for any supposed divining of Joe Biden’s destiny.
Actually, I’m making no claim to know the future. I’m merely claiming to know the past—and the past, of course, is a book open to anyone.
What I’ve described is the story of the 1972 presidential campaign. When that campaign really got going, in 1971, Democratic Senator Ed Muskie of Maine, who had been his party’s vice presidential nominee in 1968, was the clear frontrunner and was leading also in some general election polls. And yet the Muskie campaign fizzled.
Part of Muskie’s problem was that he wasn’t nearly as good a candidate as people had thought. Yet a bigger problem was that the Democrats were moving far to the left: the activist base was taking over the party. And so Muskie’s presumed strength, his centrism, became, in the minds of activists, a liability.
We can pause to observe that this always happens after a party loses the White House—and the phenomenon applies to both parties. That is, a presidential election loss discredits the party’s insiders, and so the outsider grassroots say, with vehemence—and oftentimes no little justification—it’s our turn, give us a chance.
Thus the activists, fired by ideological zeal, seize control of the party’s nomination. That is, they raise their voices, walk the precincts, show up at meetings, flock to the polls, and generally set the tone for the party. That’s how the left-wing Senator George McGovern of South Dakota won the 1972 Democratic nomination. There was no social media back then, but if there had been, McGovern would have dominated Democratic Twitter.
Yet of course, dominating the intra-party discussion is not the same thing as winning an inter-party election. So while McGovern surged to win the Democratic nomination in the summer of 1972, he crashed in his actual bid to win the White House that November. He crashed badly, in fact—he lost 49 states.
Thus it was, almost by default, that the not particularly popular Richard Nixon netted a second term. In 1968, Nixon, who had moved from California to Manhattan several years before, managed to win the White House with barely more than 43 percent of the vote (a slim plurality in a three-way race). Yet he was reelected against McGovern with nearly 61 percent of the vote. He had slagged McGovern as the candidate of “acid, abortion, and amnesty,” charges that had the additional virtue of being true, even if they were hurled by the unloved “Tricky Dick.”
Today, few observers can conceive of that other New York Republican president, Donald Trump, getting so much as 50 percent of the national vote, let alone 60 percent. And yet many can see that he might lose the popular vote, again, and still win, again, where it counts—in the Electoral College. Of course, Trump will take any sort of victory.
Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, we see obvious signs of “McGovernization,” defined as running so far to the left as to be unelectable. This McGovernization phenomenon also explains the seeming fate of Biden, who appears destined to reprise the role of Ed Muskie back in 1972; that is, he’s the safe-seeming frontrunner who all of a sudden doesn’t seem to be running in front.
Biden has been gimped, of course, by Senator Kamala Harris. Yes, Harris lamed Biden in that exchange during the Miami debate, yet the specific issue that she raised, school busing, is, electorally, a poisoned chalice. Moreover, school busing as an issue dates back to the early 1970s, a.k.a. the Nixon-McGovern era.
Indeed, the busing issue is so old that most American voters probably have little to no awareness of it. Yet now that Harris has embraced busing, other Democrats may have to embrace it, too, lest they get pummeled liked Biden. In other words, it’s possible that the Democratic nominee in 2020, whoever he or she is, will be on the record as supporting busing.
So even if the busing issue is little understood today, that lack of awareness can change fast in a presidential campaign. Here at TAC, Rod Dreher summed up the issue’s racially divisive dynamics back in the 1970s, which were disastrous for Democrats—as well as for education and the nation as a whole.
Interestingly, smart observers on the Left agree. One such is Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones: “Forced busing during the ’70s prompted one of the biggest political backlashes of the past half century. By the end of it, Ronald Reagan was president and Reaganomics dominated America for the next 40 years.”
After that history lesson, intended to scare the dickens out of his lefty readership, Drum added that the revival of busing won’t do any good:
What’s the point of pretending to be for it now? It’s not good politics and it’s mostly impossible policy anyway. In cities like New York and Los Angeles, African American and Latinx kids make up 80 percent of the population. You could spider web the city with Elon Musk’s hyperloops and you still wouldn’t be able to racially integrate the schools.
Beyond busing, one can cite other issues that suggest Democrats are once again McGovernizing. For instance, there’s Medicare for All, including its sub-idea of abolishing private health insurance. And there’s immigration, or, as the Democrats increasingly define the issue, the need to effectively open the border.
And there’s the issue of antifa hoodlums, brought to the fore by the recent brutal beating of a journalist, Andy Ngo, in Portland, Oregon.
The antifa issue also takes us back to the early 1970s, when various radical groups—including Students for a Democratic [sic] Society and the Black Panthers—waged their own wars of terror against the United States. Back then, McGovernites were seen as coddling these criminals, in keeping with an attitude either of “no enemies on the Left” or of quiet sympathy. In reaction to such craziness, Nixon, the avowed candidate of “law and order,” triumphed.
Half a century later, in this new presidential quadrennium, the Democrats seem to be making the same McGovernite mistake—that is, worrying more about fringe feelings than centrist sentiments.
Revealingly, as of this writing, only two of the 2020 Democratic hopefuls, Andrew Yang and Representative Eric Swallwell, have had anything bad to say about antifa, or expressed any sympathy for Ngo, currently hospitalized with brain injuries.
This is what McGovernization looks like, and Americans have seen this sorry show before.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.