The death of the ‘Liberal Left’?

“It doesn’t require any particular bravery to stand on the floor of the Senate and urge our boys in Vietnam to fight harder, and if this war mushrooms into a major conflict and a hundred thousand young Americans are killed, it won’t be U. S. Senators who die. It will be American soldiers who are too young to qualify for the senate.”

“I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”

No, I’m not talking about the upcoming Obama-Romney debate although, whichever candidate wins, the old guard of the liberal soul of the Democratic party will not be amongst the victors.

The death yesterday morning of former US Senator for South Dakota, three-time Presidential candidate and one-time party nominee, George McGovern (to whom both the above quotes are attributed) has left some within the Democratic party without a rallying point. Former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were quick to release this tribute to their former friend who they first met whilst working on his 1972 Presidential Campaign saying “our friendship endured for 40 years. As a war hero, distinguished professor, Congressman, Senator and Ambassador, George always worked to advance the common good and help others realize their potential.” Paying his own tribute, President Obama described him as “a statesman of great conscience and conviction” whilst the Republican (and former presidential candidate) Speaker Newt Gingrinch was typically waspish.

McGovern was first elected to Congress in 1956; his bid for the presidency in 1972 was marred by what later emerged as a dirty-tricks campaign by President Nixon’s re-election committee, including the break-in at Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC.

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An electoral map, like that above, is one that Mitt Romney could only dream of. The combination of factors that led to Nixon, who already enjoyed an advantage throughout the campaign, winning a second term in one of the biggest landslides in modern US history are unlikely to come together for the Republicans in 2012. For one thing I don’t think Mitt Romney’s book of dirty tricks (does he have one?) is as deep as ‘Tricky Dicky’s’.

George McGovern, a decorated Second World War bomber pilot who branded Nixon as the most corrupt President in history after the Watergate scandal, had to battle a number of issues – any one of which could cripple the best of campaigns. A true son of the progressionist movement of the 19th-century Midwest George McGovern was a supporter of the Progressive party candidate Henry Wallace in 1948, that breakaway element of the Democratic party that was most pro-Soviet and opposed to America’s increasing involvement in the Cold War. Going further than his progressive forerunners, including the Franklin Roosevelt of 1933, McGovern was a supporter of a redistribution of wealth through taxation and spending that was entirely alien to the American ideals of reward for individual success; his policies contained a number of measures that, if introduced, would have given the federal government a strength of paternalistic intervention that was, at the time, irreconcilable with the American division of powers and the primacy of the individual states. He was also a fervent isolationist with a keen belief that defence expenditure should be reduced in line with a draw-down in American troops in Europe; at a time when the Iron Curtain was drawing down over Eastern Europe, this message from one of the global superpowers did not sit easily with the surviving western democracies.

In all, George McGovern won a total of 17 delegates across the State of Massachusetts and the District of Columbia against an overwhelming 520 delegates for President Nixon. It was the worst electoral defeat in American history and perhaps the most unfair in that Senator McGovern was never able to take advantage of the Watergate scandal which would ultimately topple his opponent.

McGovern became the hero of the misaligned and disaffected middle-class American college youth and was quick to master the effectiveness of getting out the college vote to campaign; both Hillary and Bill Clinton, whilst attending Yale, were among those who campaigned for McGovern in the ’72 election cycle. Ultimately however McGovern’s liberal anti-Vietnam war ticket proved to be too radical for most Democrats, particularly the unions, and his anti-war rhetoric was deflated by Nixon who, on the eve of the elections, announced new proposals to bring American troops home.

Yet, despite his failure to unseat Nixon, Senator McGovern left a lasting mark on US politics. Speaking in 2006, at the dedication of the $8.5 million George and Eleanor McGovern Library and Center for Leadership and Public Service, former President Clinton said “I believe no other presidential candidate ever has had such an enduring impact in defeat” before going on to say “Senator, the fires you lit then still burn in countless hearts.”

For millions of middle-aged Americans, the death of George McGovern has brought back memories of youthful idealism. We will never know what kind of a country America could have been under his paternalistic guidance; I’m fairly confident it couldn’t have done much worse than Nixon. As Senator McGovern said after his wife’s death in 2007, “I don’t know what kind of president I would have been, but Eleanor would have been a great first lady”.

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