I agree with much of what Daniel Larison says about George Packer’s article, but I think there are a few other things wrong with the piece.
First, and most important, McGovern wasn’t just running “to the left” of the field of his day (though he was doing that). He was repudiating a central policy of the previous Democratic administration, a policy that the previous nominee could not escape association with and that the incumbent Republican administration had continued, albeit with significant changes. That policy was the Vietnam War.
The Presidency of George W. Bush hasn’t been mentioned much on the campaign trail this season, but that doesn’t mean his policies have been repudiated by the various contenders for the nomination – particularly not with respect to foreign policy and the ongoing “War on Terror” – with the exception of Ron Paul. The same can’t entirely be said for domestic policy – there has been some sniping at TARP, some criticism of the level of spending, but nothing resembling a sustained critique – except from Paul. If anybody fits the McGovern mold this time around, it’s Paul, not Gingrich.
Second, what’s interesting about the McGovern campaign is that he did, in a demographic sense, represent the future of the Democratic Party. The McGovern coalition is basically the coalition that brought Barack Obama to power; the difference between 1972 and 2008 is that this coalition is much larger than it used to be. By contrast, I have no sense that Gingrich represents the Republican coalition of the future. The South has been solidly Republican at the Presidential level for over a generation now, and Gingrich’s voters skew notably older. He may be a futurist in his own mind, but it’s a future that is already past.
Finally, I don’t think it’s really true that McGovern’s huge loss turned the Democrats back to the center. Jimmy Carter’s victories in the primaries and the general election were a bit of a fluke. In 1980, Carter faced the Kennedy insurgency. In 1984, the Democrats opted for Mondale – the definition of an old style coalition liberal – over centrist insurgent Gary Hart. In 1988, the victorious candidate was again something of a fluke – Dukakis was projecting a certain vision of centrism (“competence not ideology”) but he was hardly the leading representative of a centrist faction within the party. It wasn’t until Clinton’s victory in 1992 that the Democrats assembled a stable winning coalition around a new center – and around the emphatic commitment to governing from the center. And this new center was just the mature form of the old McGovern coalition.
Regardless of who the GOP lost with this year, I wouldn’t expect a profound soul searching. The Democrats had to lose a run of five out of six Presidential elections over two decades to thoroughly remake their party. If you want to know what will likely follow a Romney loss, take a look at what followed Dole’s loss in 1996.