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A Look Back at Seven Centrist Defeats

Bernie Sanders is more electable than any centrist.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a roundtable discussion on January 29, 2020 in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at a roundtable discussion on January 29, 2020 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

In 2016 Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton, not because she was a visionary, certainly not because her agenda generated enthusiasm among young voters, but because Democrats—influenced by media—simply assumed that centrists are automatically more electable than progressives.

That assumption has no basis in reality. Even worse, the centrist viewpoint could well lead to another Clinton-like fiasco.

Many voters may be too young (or too old) to remember the sorry record of centrist failures. I am 82 years old, and I have painful memories of seven ignominious defeats of Democratic nominees. And prior to all the nominations, pundits and press insisted that Democrats needed to move the party to the right in order to defeat their Republican adversary. They blamed the misfortunes of the Democratic Party on excessive liberalism.

However, when we actually look at the historical record, a different story emerges, a story that dispels the myth of centrist electability.

ADLAI STEVENSON

I was a teenager when Democrat Adlai Stevenson ran a pitiful, overly intellectual campaign against Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ("Ike"). Stevenson was a liberal from Illinois who, in order to win the presidency, became a centrist in his campaign. Centrists are afraid to confront the war machine that sucks wealth and treasure out of our domestic economy. Stevenson never had the guts to call for an end to the Korean War. I remember when my father, a Democrat, voted for Eisenhower in 1952, after Ike wiped out Stevenson with a single announcement: "I will go to Korea. The time has come to bring our boys home." Stevenson's wimpy centrism lost big in 1952.

Despite that loss, the Democrats didn't change their agenda or strategy in 1956. The party nominated Stevenson again. During the 2nd campaign against Eisenhower, a black woman asked Stevenson to take a clear stand on the historic Supreme Court ruling against segregated schools. Stevenson choked, and he refused to support the use of federal troops to enforce the ruling. As a result of his default on civil rights —a subject on the mind of most Americans—Stevenson lost by a bigger margin in 1956 than in 1952.

HUBERT HUMPHREY WAFFLES

In 1968 Hubert Humphrey, once proud of his liberal record, campaigned as Lyndon Johnson's proxy. His centrist campaign, his refusal to make a clean break from LBJ's war, made Nixon's victory possible. Republicans know how to goad liberal Democrats into war, only to leave them with blood on their hands, the consequences of their own right-wing follies.

Notwithstanding his record as a hawk and witch-hunter, Nixon became—by default of the Democrats—the "peace" candidate. Nixon offered a "secret plan" for ending the war. The Democrats, so far gone in their pro-interventionist policy, were outflanked again.

McGOVERN

Richard Nixon's defeat of George McGovern, the anti-war candidate in 1972, is often cited as an excuse for choosing centrists over progressives (regardless of the litany of centrist presidential defeats).

Nixon's victory is not especially difficult to understand. His monetary policies, which caused inflation in the long run, fired up economic growth prior to the election. The incumbent's approval ratings were high.

Nixon was a master of timing. He claimed to be winding down the war. In February he made his historic trip to communist China and met with Mao. After George Wallace was shot, Wallace supporters went over to Tricky Dick. 

The Democratic Party was still in disarray from the Johnson-Humphrey betrayal of their mandate for peace and social justice. Humphrey and other centrists continued to attack McGovern. 

In sum, as Joshua Mound wrote in the New Republic (Feb.29, 2016): "Any Democratic nominee was doomed in 1972."

MONDALE

Antipathy to progressive politics dominated the conservative money-drenched leadership of the Democratic Party throughout the 1980s. The thrilling grassroots campaign of Reverend Jesse Jackson caused panic in the halls of Congress. Democratic insiders nominated Walter Mondale, as right-wing as Joe Biden today. When nominated, Mondale rejected all of Jesse Jackson's platforms at the convention. Mondale went on to engineer the ugly system of "superdelegates," designed to prevent progressive candidates from ever winning a nomination. The Congressional Quarterly called Mondale's platform "economically the most conservative platform in the last fifty years." It promoted cuts in social spending and an increased military budget. Mondale expected he could win the election by appeasing militarists and conservatives. He won 40% of the popular vote.

RIGHT-WING POSTURING OF DUKAKIS

The 1988 Democratic primary was far more exciting than most. Seven million Americans supported Jackson's second bid for the nomination. Not one United States senator or governor endorsed the African-American candidate. But the Mayor of Burlington, Vermont—Bernie Sanders—not only endorsed Jackson, he won over the majority of Vermont delegates for the Rainbow Coalition.

Michael Dukakis ran a typical centrist primary: he leaned to the left to win the nomination, only to turn to the right to campaign in the general election.

Awed by pundits and self-proclaimed pragmatists, Dukakis tried to look conservative. He organized a dramatic, histrionic photo opp. He invited national TV to capture him riding around in a tank. You could barely see his tiny head in the cockpit. The media loved it. And while Dukakis won the "asshole of the year award" from a group of anarchists, our mastermind of centrist tactics lost the election.

KERRY FLIP FLOPS ON IRAQ

Of all the centrist defeats, none is sadder than John Kerry's campaign against "W" Bush, the man who initiated the 2003 invasion of Iraq and facilitated the rise of ISIS.

Kerry was actually beating the drums for intervention in the Mideast even before Bush launched the invasion. On July 2, 2002, Kerry gave a speech to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council: "I agree completely with this administration's goal of a regime change in Iraq."

During the 2004 primary, I remember sitting on the couch watching TV with my wife. A reporter pressed John Kerry to answer George Bush about whether, "knowing what we know now" (that there were no weapons of mass destruction), would he have supported the Bush decision. "Yes, I would have voted for the authority."

"Oh my God!" I turned to my wife and said, "He just lost the election!"

Euphemism is inherent in centrist realpolitik. Kerry would tell reporters: "I think it the right decision to disarm Hussein."

Disarm? The U.S. did not just disarm Hussein. The U.S. Air Force bombed Bagdad and other populated cities. Thousands of children were injured or killed. Museums with 2,000-year-old artifacts were looted. Muslims were tortured at Abu Ghraib. Rivers were drenched with oil and set on fire. Refugees fled into Syria. American soldiers and Iraqi civilians became sick, and babies were born with deformities from U.S. depleted uranium.

(Kerry now supports the candidacy of Joe Biden, who also voted for the war in Iraq and, like Kerry, equivocates about the real meaning of his vote.)

HILLARY CLINTON, THE HAWK

Hillary Clinton ran against the most unpopular candidate in the history of presidential elections. And lost. Until we recognize how such an ignominious defeat was possible, voters are likely to make the same mistake again, to run the Clinton campaign one more time—with a new face, of course, Joe Biden.

Let us recall the pivotal debate between Trump and Clinton over foreign policy. When Trump denounced Clinton's infamous Iraq war vote, he was able to present himself as a kind of peace candidate who would halt endless wars. Trump understands centrist vulnerability. He put Clinton on the defensive, and she was helpless. Everyone knew she was a hawk. And it was disingenuous of her to portray her war vote as some isolated mistake, something out of the ordinary, when all Washington knew she was an interventionist, voter for military budgets, for sanctions, arms sales to dictators, a foreign policy wheeler-dealer with experience.

THE FUTURE IS PROGRESSIVE

I believe Sanders has a better chance of defeating Trump than Biden or any centrist candidate. Sanders does not just dwell on the white middle class. His campaign reaches beyond the party establishment to the chronically unemployed, to the poor, the unhoused, the young, rising electorate of the time. Victory over Trump requires a mass coalition strategy.

The Green New Deal is often compared to the New Deal of FDR and Truman in the '40s and '50s. However, the old New Deal was deficient. African Americans were denied access to college, turned down for home loans, and domestic and agricultural workers were not even covered. In essence, minorities were excluded.

In contrast, the Green New Deal is inclusive. Its preamble calls attention to the "large racial wealth divide in the U.S. amounting to a difference of 20 times more wealth between the average white family and average black family."

Representative Barbara Lee, one of 90 co-sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution, writes: "Black, brown and low-income communities bear the brunt of pollution and environmental degradation from accelerated climate change.…That is why addressing climate change is not just an environmental issue, but also an imperative to achieve racial and economic justice."

Bernie's "Economic Bill of Rights" is clear:

"Every person in this country must have a right to:

  • A decent job
  • Quality health care
  • A complete education
  • Affordable housing
  • A clean environment
  • A secure retirement
  • It's time for a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights."

  • It's time for a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights."

With our help, history will vindicate the message of Bernie Sanders: "Not me, Us."

Paul Rockwell

Paul Rockwell is a writer living in the Bay Area. He is a columnist for In Motion Magazine, the East Bay Times and Montclarion in Oakland. Contact Mr. Rockwell.

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