Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Are the Republicans Headed for a McGovern Moment?

A good friend and loyal reader of this blog queried me today about whether I thought that the GOP is on a similar trajectory as the Democratic Party in 1972. For those of you not versed in political history, that was the year that the Democratic Party failed to unseat Richard Nixon, a highly divisive president who had failed to make good on his promise to end the war in Vietnam. During the primaries, establishment candidates like Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey faltered in the face of grass-roots support for George McGovern, perhaps the most liberal major-party nominee for president in America's history.

I certainly admire George McGovern and his politics, but that, of course, was the problem. His positions were too far to the Left, and the ever-shifty Nixon took advantage of this, since his own policies often appeased liberals, as in the case of his signing of landmark environmental legislation and establishing OSHA. Nixon's domestic policies were moderate at the time, they would make him a Democrat today. McGovern also made several major mistakes in his campaign, many that could be blamed on his lack of experience on the national stage. He famously stood "1000%" behind his VP nominee Senator Eagleton after his earlier treatment for mental illness was revealed, and then looked unstable and untrustworthy by dumping him soon after. Activists flooded the 1972 DNC because of rules encouraging the nomination of delegates from outside of the traditional machine, but this also led to fights over the platform and a nomination process so contentious that McGovern had to give his acceptance speech in the middle of the night, when no one was watching. The liberal wing of the party got what it wanted, but it was not what the rest of the nation was after, even if Nixon was hardly a beloved figure. On election night he won in one of the biggest landslides in election history.

In some respects, the GOP is going down the same road. They are facing up against a president with less than stellar popularity, this time due to a stagnant economy and his inability to live up to (admittedly unrealistic) expectations. Despite that advantage, they seem prepared to squander it by nominating a candidate odious to the political mainstream. Romney, the establishment candidate, keeps getting eclipsed in the polls by an impressively loony cast of ideological die-hards. First it was Michele "vaccinations cause mental retardation" Bachmann. After that, it was Rick "oops" Perry. Then Herman "I don't need to know foreign policy" Cain had his rise and fall, with a nice little sex scandal thrown in for good measure. Nowadays Romney trails Newt "my campaign was left for dead months ago because every word that passes my lips is lying, pompous, bullshit" Gingrich. Instead of one McGovern, the Republicans have at least four of them.

This week, in an interview with Univision, Barack Obama said something regarding his strategy for the election that I've been thinking for some time: "we may just run clips of the Republican debates verbatim." Every one of the crop of crazy candidates, including Romney, has said something toxic in their eternal game to prove ideological purity. By putting their reality show (the incessant, unprecedented number of primary debates) on TV each week, they are making themselves in the kind of televisual trainwreck that America can't get enough of these days. Think of it as "Real Candidates of Wingnutia."

As much as I'd like the Republicans to shoot themselves in the face with their own 2nd Amendment-protected shotgun load of conservative looniness, I don't think it will happen. Unlike the Democrats, they have a history of rallying behind the most acceptable candidate rather than ripping themselves to pieces. (Goldwater is the exception that proves the rule.) Back in '72 Nixon's infamous dirty tricksters had deliberately undermined the more mainstream Democrats like Muskie, manipulating the primaries to get the opponent they wanted. I doubt president Obama's men are up to something similar. Instead, at some point the Koch Brothers and the other money men who really call the shots will step in Godfather-style and make Gingrich, Bachmann, Cain, and Perry an offer they can't refuse. As I've said before, evil will prevail.

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