Some Democrats are still scared of George McGovern. They look at Bernie Sanders, and they see someone “too far to the left” to win the general election.
That’s the conventional political wisdom. But keep in mind that this same “conventional wisdom” all but guaranteed that Hillary Clinton would be the nominee in 2008 and dismissed the notion of Donald Trump being anything but a flash in the pan this year.
Even Nate Silver’s analytics-driven FiveThirtyEight was flat wrong (along with a lot of other pundits) in predicting that Clinton would win this year’s Michigan primary handily – probably the most badly bungled prediction since “Dewey defeats Truman.”
Political punditry isn’t exact, and it’s not a science.
Sometimes, it’s nothing more than spin: advocacy disguised as analysis.
Other times, the pundits are so full of themselves they believe their own “infallibility” hype. They get cocky, and they get it wrong.
And often, they’re wrong about the future because they’re wrong about the past. Certain assumptions are just repeated ad nauseam on cable TV until they become a sort of political gospel.
This is where the McGovern Effect comes in.
Ever since the Democrats nominated “peace candidate” George McGovern in 1972 – only to watch Tricky Dick Nixon annihilate him in the General Election – they’ve been deathly afraid of history repeating itself.
Nominate someone too far to the left, and it’ll be another massacre. So the conventional wisdom says. Just look at liberal Mike Dukakis, who failed to work any Massachusetts miracles against George Bush I.
It’s the gospel truth.
And because a lot Democrats today have accepted that gospel, they look at Bernie Sanders and see George McGovern staring back at them. They look in the other direction, at Hillary Clinton, and they see a last name that’s shared by a relatively moderate two-term Democratic president.
No brainer, right?
Go with what works.
Except they’re so worried about history repeating itself that they’re ignoring a more recent, more telling precedent. All they have to do is look across the aisle.
Four years after McGovern lost in that landslide, a Republican challenged the incumbent president from the right and nearly beat him. That challenger was, of course, Ronald Reagan – who scared establishment Republicans out of their wits. He was too conservative, they thought. They remembered what had happened to Barry Goldwater in ’64 when he won the nomination from the far right: LBJ had destroyed him in the general election, just as Nixon later buried McGovern.
The GOP establishment breathed a sigh of relief when they saw incumbent Gerald Ford hang on by the skin of his teeth to defeat Reagan … only to watch him lose to Jimmy Carter in the general election.
We all know what happened four years later: Reagan won the nomination on his second try and defeated Carter for the presidency.
Historically speaking, Sanders resembles Reagan a lot more than he does McGovern. Or Goldwater. Or Dukakis.
For one thing, like Reagan, he’s generating the kind of excitement his primary opponent can’t match. Hillary Clinton is about as exciting as Gerald Ford was – without the clumsiness but with a whole lot more political baggage. Would Reagan have carried enough enthusiasm into the general election to beat Carter in ’76? We’ll never know. But we do know he beat him four years later.
By then, Ford was out of politics and Carter was a wounded president, crippled by a sluggish economy and the Iran hostage crisis.
That made him vulnerable – in much the same way the Republicans are vulnerable this year. Will the Republican nominee be Donald Trump or Ted Cruz? It hardly matters. In either case, the Democrats will face someone with the kind of anemic approval ratings that resemble Carter’s a lot more than Nixon’s.
This is where the McGovern Effect breaks down even more.
In Nixon, McGovern faced an incumbent who was highly popular at the time among everyone except the far left. Naturally, the far left voted for McGovern, and everyone else chose Nixon.
The same held true for Goldwater and Dukakis, both of whom were victims of strong opposition far more than their own ideology. Goldwater was up against the heir to a charismatic president whose death was still being mourned a year after his assassination. And Dukakis’ opponent, the first George Bush, was Reagan’s chosen successor. Kennedy and Reagan: the two most iconic presidents of the second half of the 20th century.
Somehow, the names Trump and Cruz just don’t have the same gravitas.
On top of this, Sanders also has an advantage in social media that McGovern could never have conceived of.
Does this mean Sanders’ nascent revolution is destined to repeat the Reagan revolution’s electoral success?
I’m not going there.
What I will say is that anyone who dismisses Sanders as a viable Democratic candidate based on the McGovern Effect is ignoring some powerful evidence that points in the opposite direction.
“Destiny” and “inevitability” are the language of pundits who crow about their predictions and then end up eating it. The crow, that is.
A sparrow might just tell another story.
We’ll have to wait and see.