George McGovern: Still Out There

In this third mind-numbing year of the Iraq War, with George Bush continuing to do for the name of democracy what Joseph Stalin once did for socialism, it may be hard to imagine that these could actually be good times for the Democratic Party. But they could - in a "they were the best of times; they were the worst of times" kind of way. At the very least, early primary star Howard Dean's selection as Democratic Party Chair means there's no reason that the military and corporate-oriented Democratic Leadership Council should again dominate the debate.

In this third mind-numbing year of the Iraq War, with George Bush continuing to do for the name of democracy what Joseph Stalin once did for socialism, it may be hard to imagine that these could actually be good times for the Democratic Party. But they could - in a "they were the best of times; they were the worst of times" kind of way. At the very least, early primary star Howard Dean's selection as Democratic Party Chair means there's no reason that the military and corporate-oriented Democratic Leadership Council should again dominate the debate. And, by the way, George McGovern, whose 1972 presidential nomination was the product of the Party's last great grassroots insurgency, is still out there pushing for the Democrats to actually be the party of the people.

McGovern's candidacy grew from an antiwar base whose 1968 experience had one important similarity to the 2004 race: they were frustrated not only at losing the election, but by the fact that the Democratic candidate was also pro-war. The nominee in that case was Hubert Humphrey and the war was in Vietnam. McGovern went on to lose to Richard Nixon in a landslide, however, so his campaign has been remembered less as a highwater mark of the Democratic Party left than a warning of what could happen if you actually said what you believed.

Yet, by mid-1973, national polls already showed a majority of voters thinking McGovern had been the better candidate - and this was with many of the Watergate Hearing revelations about the true nature of the Nixon Administration still to come. (And there was the one poll that showed McGovern had won the election - which is to say, a majority claimed to have actually voted for him in 1972, presumably because that many respondents were unwilling to admit that they really voted for Nixon - even to a pollster.) While none of this would get George McGovern lunch in the White House, it was a remarkable turn of events that really ought to be considered when the story of his campaign is told.

Since that time, McGovern has been to former nominees much what Jimmy Carter has been to ex-presidents. Carter has written the book on the political life you could lead after the White House, while McGovern has stood out among the also rans for his perseverance at the causes that motivated his candidacy - in the considerably lower limelight accorded the ex-nominee, to be sure. There are those who have noticed his trek, though, like the crowd that overflowed a recent McGovern reading in Terra Linda, California - many with campaign buttons and paraphernalia from 1972 - who made up a much more engaged audience than you'd expect to find were the speaker Mondale or Dukakis, or Gore or Kerry.

McGovern simply doesn't sound like the others. While most name Democrats, Dean included, have either bowed to the seeming inevitability of prolonged American occupation of Iraq or grown silent for other reasons, McGovern continues to call for withdrawal of our troops. And he offers suggestions for what to do with the $5 billion a month this would save, including sending a billion a month in food and agricultural aid to poor nations. (He served as US Ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization during the second Clinton Administration.)

He also appears to be the only former major party presidential candidate to publish a Hunter Thompson eulogy, noting that his campaign considered Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail to be "the least accurate and most truthful of the campaign books that appeared after the 1972 race," and that Thompson had considered McGovern "the best of a lousy lot." And McGovern has a new book of his own, The Essential America.

The Essential America is a slim volume, part update on McGovern's recent political efforts, part continued assessment of 1972, and part political program. It stands out in its focus on specifics at a moment when political discussion can tend toward more oblique topics like "reframing" issues, "rebranding" the party, "repackaging" our values, and generally psychologizing the opposition. For openers, there's the proposal to reduce the US military budget to half its current size by cutting $25 billion annually for the next ten years.

With supposed early 2008 Democratic frontrunners already talking tough militarily, an idea like this would be dismissed out of hand by the Party's smart money pragmatists - if they thought about it at all. They'd consider it laughable, utopian, political suicide, or worse - maybe even literal suicide, given the events of September 11, 2001 and the reaction to the subsequent US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet it is McGovern who is the realist in addressing a central matter of American politics that some "realists" would rather not consider: Democrats need to seriously distinguish themselves from White House foreign policy, not just because war and occupation is a loser of a national security strategy, but to be able to do much of anything at home.

Today's Republican ideologues range from Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform, whose "goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub," on down to those who just want to reduce any government program that redistributes income downward, regulates business, facilitates unionization, or provides social services. Military spending, on the other hand, enjoys their support on levels ranging up to the virtually boundless. With the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks offering a permanent rationale for more and better weapons, and Bush having resuscitated the Reagan-era Star Wars Program, when it comes to military spending, once again, the sky is not the limit.

From the right wing Republican standpoint that dominates the party, every dollar that goes to Halliburton, Bechtel - or any military-related contractor - does double duty in that it is also a dollar unavailable for the programs that most Democrats promote - and most Republicans hope to see wither and die. Congressional Democrats may avert their eyes from this connection, but McGovern recognizes that so long as Americans buy the idea of an aggressive, armed-to-the-teeth America as a safer America, every program the Democratic Party has created - or might wish to create - stands in permanent jeopardy.

Still the same plain spoken Midwesterner trying to talk sense, McGovern figures that recruits to groups like Al Qaeda are less likely to actually "hate our freedom" than to despise the Middle East's "high-living royalists closely tied to Washington and London in trade, investment, oil, and military aid that keep those unpopular regimes in power." With Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction long since exposed as a sham, the Administration now retroactively justifies the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a crusade for democracy in the Middle East. So you might expect to hear combative Democrats reminding the nation that 1,500 Americans and maybe 100,000 Iraqis would still be alive today if we had started our supposed democracy campaign by pressuring our close, undemocratic Saudi Arabian allies rather than by trying to bomb Iraq into it. The fact that you don't hear this is what makes McGovern's book so much to the point - and why it will draw little attention.

His national health care proposal will also seem a bit - ah - big for some Washington Democrats whose ideas have shrunk from the years spent nibbling at the edge of issues. It's also shockingly straight forward compared to the last big Democratic health care initiative - the Clinton plan. Even though exorbitant insurance costs constitute a major part of the problem, the Clintons hoped that if they left private health insurers alone, they might not attack the bill. Instead the Administration proposed overlaying a distinctly Rube Goldberg-like government bureaucracy on top of the already existing insurance industry bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the insurance industry unleashed an advertising blitz and destroyed the bill, anyhow.

McGovern's idea? "Extend Medicare to all Americans now six years of age and under. After two years, extend Medicare from age seven to eighteen. After another two years, extend the program to ages nineteen through thirty-five. After two more years, extend it to those thirty-six through sixty-four. The formula has the advantage of extending an existing program that the Congress, the press, the medical establishment, and the public are all familiar with - health insurance for those sixty-five and over. There would seem to be no reason why this same benefit should not apply to those Americans under sixty-five." And there you have it - a plan you don't need a social work degree to understand.

Overall, the book's interest lies less in the originality of its ideas, than in their presentation as a specific political program by one who once scaled the heights of party politics. A later Democratic presidential aspirant who didn't get that far, Bill Bradley, recently critiqued the party: "It's important to see what Republicans have done right over many years. When the Goldwater Republicans lost in 1964, they didn't try to become Democrats." Goldwater's loss was nearly as overwhelming as McGovern's and was considered a disaster at the time, but we can see it clearly now as the first step toward the ascension of the Republican right that continues to this day.

Certainly, the post-'64 Republican right that stayed the course enjoyed one tremendous advantage over the post-'72 Democratic left that did not. The enlightened self-interest of wealthy Americans saw to it that investment money flowed freely into organizations and think tanks that promoted the viewpoint that the rich didn't have enough money yet and would be needing something back on their taxes. But, among the bright notes of the 2004 campaign was the realization of the fund-raising potential of motivated grass roots activists. Right now, lack of common purpose is a greater problem than lack of money.

The Essential America bears some similarities to another small book that is selling far more copies - George Lakoff's 'Don't Think About an Elephant'. Both mix notes on the author's off-page activities with political argument, in Lakoff's case, concerning the language and psychology of politics. Once Lakoff's more numerous readers absorb his arguments on how to say it, they would do well to pick up McGovern's book for some thoughts on what to say.

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