In the spring of 2008, after Barack Obama’s rise was slowed by the late-emerging Jeremiah Wright story, a conservative columnist deployed the most devastating critique in the catechism. Obama was lurching toward a “McGovern candidacy.” Everybody knew what that meant. A hapless liberal would present his agenda, be undone by his radicalism, and lose in a landslide.
I’ve always thought that this easy, lazy history was unfair to McGovern. The 1972 primary campaign was obviously the “left” force in the Democratic primary, the inheritor of the RFK and McCarthy movements. But it was a challenge to a Democratic party that’s now unrecognizable. On his right, McGovern was flanked by the neo-segregationist campaign of George Wallace – who won the big early Southern primaries, as well as Michigan. On his left, in economics, McGovern was challenged by the reheated New Deal-ism of Hubert Humphrey. McGovern actually ran on a reform program premised on the idea that the tax code had grown pointlessly unfair and that defense spending would bankrupt the United States.
McGovern’s most daring idea, the “Demogrant,” was actually copped from Milton Friedman. Instead of a personal income tax exemption, every American would have a $1,000 tax credit, a floor that essentially gave them minimum incomes. An idea like that would eventually be adopted by Republicans, and a similar concept is part of the “Fair Tax” that (for a while, anyway) captivated the Tea Party. But Nixon was able to hang McGovern with another idea, for a $6,500 minimum income. A famous Nixon ad showed a worried construction worker on the job as a narrator warned of “47% of Americans” growing dependent on the state. It didn’t matter that Humphrey initially sponsored that concept. McGovern was effectively transformed, by Nixon, by the AFL-CIO, into a culturally alien symbol of fiscal looting from the white working class. Decades later, the candidate would get his revenge by opposing the unions’ quest for “card check” – which suggested he was never as dead-headedly liberal as they’d said.
Also, I always thought that this speech was underrated.