Sadly, George McGovern passed away today at the age of 90.
McGovern, who ran against Richard Nixon in 1972 and took one of the worst drubbings in electoral history, has for decades been the poster boy for high-minded useless extreme liberalism whose only saving grace was that had he been elected we wouldn't have had Watergate. Only in the last decade or so have historians started to re-write the narrative that his candidacy was organically misunderstood.
To be fair, some of this is valid. Some of his plans and ideas were poorly sold even if said ideas ended up being used. A perfect example of this (for better or worse) involved welfare. McGovern championed a "guaranteed income" of $1000 to all Americans. Attempting to make it not sound like socialism while promoting it simplicity, he was so politically tone-deaf as to not realize that this actually made it sound worse. Meanwhile, Nixon ended up championing the negative income tax, a slightly more complicated scheme that, while it clearly emphasized an incentive to work, was still, in the end, another form of guaranteed income. For Americans, McGovern's plan sounded like rank, unadulterated socialist welfare, while Nixon's plan--which was never adopted--sounded more like "welfare reform" than any sort of blatant giveaway.
And yet, not really. McGovern's experience in the 1972 campaign was almost a textbook caricature of how conservatives painted liberals. The slogan of anti-McGovern activists--"Amnesty, Abortion, and
Acid"--was everything that was wrong with the McGovern candidacy. (Roe
vs. Wade had yet to be decided.) Even twenty years later, Newt Gingrich was able to call the Clinton White House a collection of "Counterculture McGovericks" and everyone knew exactly what he was talking about.
There were so many problems with the '72 campaign that even when things started looking up for him--the few things that were--it was too late. One of the biggest blunders was the selection of Thomas Eagleton as his vice presidential candidate. In and of itself this was a solid choice; a reasonably moderate and competent Senator from a middle-sized battleground state. Yet only about two weeks after his selection it was revealed that he had received electroshock therapy; back then, this was a major red flag (the procedure, at the time, was still controversial and misunderstood by the population). (Plus, in the Cold War days of heightened tensions, having someone with a history of psychological problems having access to nuclear codes was no doubt a concern.) McGovern then claimed to be behind him "1000%," only to days later drop him from the ticket (and selecting someone from the Kennedy clan, Sargent Shriver). The political incompetence of not vetting Eagleton first, combined with backing him up and then dumping him, showed a huge amount of political naivety.
However, a true nuts-and-bolts description of how far off McGovern was in his abilities can be found in the book The Making of the President 1972. The passage about the 1972 Democratic Convention in Florida shows how everything went wrong. Old party hands were frozen out; delegates (mostly inexperienced activists in their early 20s) were put in charge of their various committees; there was little filter or control over what message was being sent out to the nation. It was effectively giving a college class filled with radicals control of the entire Democratic Party, and the results were exactly what one would expect. Combine that with McGovern's simplistic and unrealistic positions on important issues--even anti-war politicians knew that an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam was a pipe dream--and it was a recipe for an unmitigated disaster. And although it might be extrapolated a bit too much, if his inability to manage something like the DNC was just a microcosm of how the White House was going to be run, voters wanted nothing to do with it.
His situation was similar to Jimmy Carter's, of course--quietly but forceful religious men who were genuinely decent public servants yet had a remarkably ineffective ability to interpret politics. While it's easy to write off his defeat as the result of Nixon's dirty tricks or a population unwilling to face hard truths, the details seem to show this to be false.
George McGovern was an unabashed liberal, and he had the forces necessary to translate his vision of America into a platform, but he was unable to either articulate this into a palatable package for voters. Nor was he effectively able to fend off even the weakest of criticisms. While it's tempting to rewrite history as the "what-if" candidate after Nixon's duplicity, the sad fact is that George McGovern did far, far more damage to George McGovern than Nixon, Republicans, or voters ever did.