The death of George McGovern this weekend, at the age of 90, offered us a brief moment of civility in an uncivil season. Republicans paid tribute to the senator and 1972 Democratic presidential nominee who had, for many on the right, embodied the worst excesses of post-World War II liberalism. Bob Dole and John McCain hailed him for a lifetime of service, and Democrats who defined themselves against McGovern’s unapologetic ideology — Gary Hart and Bill Clinton among them — honored the man who had helped draw them into politics in the first place.
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In these final days of the 2012 campaign, there’s a lesson in the lives and legacies of McGovern and another presidential candidate who also endured one of the biggest electoral losses in modern history: the right-wing Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was defeated in a landslide by incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. In 1972, incumbent Richard Nixon defeated McGovern, also in a landslide. Both McGovern and Goldwater came to be seen in better lights as the years went by, and, in the end, both are remembered for remaining true to their unabashed politics.
Roughly put, American politics has been driven by two kinds of practitioners of the craft: the ideologues and the pragmatists. The categories are necessarily imprecise, but the distinction can be a useful one in assessing the candidates of the moment. Political movements tend to succeed when an ideologue sets the stage for a pragmatist of the same essential disposition to carry on the work in a more politically palatable way. So it was with Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and so it was with McGovern and Bill Clinton. One thing is clear about 2012: neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is a Goldwater or a McGovern, destined to lose because of an unflinching philosophical creed. So the question is whether either man is a Clinton or a Reagan, a pragmatist likely to succeed by working within existing traditions.
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Goldwater introduced ideas in the 1964 campaign that were ultimately carried into action by Reagan, who won the presidency sixteen years later. Writing in The New York Times when Goldwater died in 1998, Adam Clymer observed that the Arizonan had “accepted his defeat with likable equanimity. ‘When you’ve lost an election by that much,’ he observed ruefully, ‘it isn’t the case of whether you made the wrong speech or wore the wrong necktie. It was just the wrong time.’ He could even joke about the press: ‘I’ve often said that if I hadn’t known Barry Goldwater in 1964 and I had to depend on the press and the cartoons, I’d have voted against the son of a bitch.’” The SOB’s essential view that the first question of governance ought to be what the market can do rather than what the state can do, however, became the prevailing ethos of the country after 1981.
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McGovern’s 1972 campaign was chaotic, but he did represent the great Democratic tradition of FDR, Truman, and Stevenson that the first obligation of the state was to care for the less fortunate. “By the time he ran for President in 1972, Sen. McGovern was not only a hero in war, but a stalwart voice for peace in Vietnam,” said President Clinton in awarding McGovern the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000. “Hillary and I and several others in this room … were honored to embrace his conviction that we could move our country forward. For decades, his conviction never wavered.” Still, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and, in 2008, Barack Obama won national elections by arguing, usually implicitly, that they were not McGovern Democrats but, in Clinton’s case, New Democrats. Still, the essential motivating force of the Democratic Party—that government can be a force for good — was, and is, rooted in the tradition McGovern embodied.
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This election year is neither a 1964 nor a 1972. The race is close, the issues separating the two candidates much narrower than those that defined the Johnson-Goldwater and the Nixon-McGovern campaigns. Given the campaign still unfolding, it’s clear that neither nominee really wants to be as candid and as far-reaching in their arguments about what needs to be done in terms of taxes and spending. So we know they aren’t ideologues. The best we can hope for is that the winner proves to be an effective pragmatist.