“Warren would be the most liberal nominee since 1972, when George McGovern got a pathetic 37% of the vote,” wrote Steve Chapman, a Chicago Tribune editorial-board member, in a recent column on the candidate’s unelectability. The MSNBC host Chris Matthews, a ’70s youngster, recently invoked McGovern’s rout to explain why Bernie Sanders can’t win. Even an adviser to McGovern in 1972, Marshall Matz, has tried “to sound the alarm” about history repeating itself if the Democrats nominate Sanders. “I do believe that Senator Sanders is too liberal to defeat an incumbent Republican president, especially an incumbent president with a good economy and a huge bankroll.”
Both Nixon in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1984 were incumbents with good economies and huge bankrolls. Both the progressive McGovern and the moderate Mondale lost badly. But where are the moderate Democrats sounding the alarm about Bloomberg or Biden or Buttigieg or Klobuchar being another Mondale, being too moderate to defeat Trump? If moderates can evoke McGovern to warn against a progressive nominee, then why can’t progressives evoke Mondale to warn against a moderate nominee?
Ibram X. Kendi: Why I fear a moderate Democratic nominee
For decades, moderate Democrats have repeatedly invoked McGovern’s rout whenever any sort of progressive appears on the political horizon. In recent Democratic primaries, moderates have warned of Howard Dean in 2004, of Barack Obama in 2008, and now, of Warren and Sanders, as the new McGoverns who can’t win.
How are these moderate Democrats running on their electability in 2020 when a moderate Democrat lost to Trump in 2016? How is the electable moderate reborn when it has died so many times in recent presidential elections? Simple: When moderate Democrats lose, they blame everything except the party’s decision to nominate a moderate for president of the United States.
Take the aftermath of the 2016 election. In her memoir, What Happened?, Clinton blamed FBI Director James Comey, Sanders, Russian operatives, sexism, the Green Party nominee Jill Stein, white resentment, the media airtime of Trump and the email scandal, and, bravely, herself. It is undeniable that all of these factors contributed to her defeat. But something even more basic could have been the deciding factor: moderate Democrats nominating Clinton over Sanders. Instead of blaming everyone else, including Clinton, perhaps those Democrats responsible for nominating her should be blaming themselves.
If the roles were reversed, most moderates would almost certainly be imploring progressives to blame themselves. If Sanders had been nominated in 2016, and similar factors contributed to his defeat, then I suspect moderates would not be highlighting all these factors, just as they do not highlight the factors that contributed to McGovern’s loss in 1972. That year, he faced not only a popular incumbent and good economy, but a “dirty tricks” unit that broke into the Watergate complex to wiretap the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Perhaps most terrible, many moderate Democrats either joined old Lyndon B. Johnson allies in “Democrats for Nixon” efforts or simply refused to offer their public support. Polls showed McGovern far behind Nixon except when paired with Senator Ted Kennedy. But Kennedy declined to run with McGovern, as did five other prominent moderates. McGovern had to settle for Senator Thomas Eagleton, who hurt his already poorly run campaign. If moderates can blame progressives for Clinton’s loss in 2016, then progressives can blame moderates for McGovern’s loss in 1972—and progressives can blame moderates for a Sanders loss in 2020 if moderates withhold support again.