Sunday, February 24, 2008

clinton, obama, and . . . mcgovern?

Hilary Clinton's campaign seems to be winding down, courtesy of her husband and a bizarre set of rules under which a candidate can win virtually every big state primary and still lose. The hero of the hour is now Barack Obama, who it is said will sweep everything before him in the name of youth, optimism, and a slippery but appealing concept of change. Obama is variously compared to Jack or Bobby Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, or even the younger Bill Clinton, who was elected in 1992 at the same age (46) and with much the same freshness Obama has now. But there is another precedent that is somewhat less encouraging.

In 1972 George McGovern overwhelmed the Democratic party machine and was nominated for President against the largely unpopular, if respected, incumbent Richard Nixon. Like Obama, McGovern deployed armies of youthful volunteers--Bill and Hillary among them--who swept past or ignored the party establishment in state after state, leaving more traditional candidates, like E Muskie and Hubert Humphrey, in the political dusk. Like Obama, the McGovern forces exploited the party's rules to outflank their opposition, although in that case it was the prevalence of winner-take-all contests (McGovern won all the California delegates despite an unimpressive percentage victory) rather than their current absence. Like Obama, McGovern built a coalition emphasizing minorities, intellectuals, and upper income "new left" voters at the expense of more traditional Democratic constituencies. Those who noted the obvious problems with this strategy were derided--much like Obama's critics--as old-fashioned reactionaries who lacked the requisite imagination, courage and hope.

Thirty-six years is a long time, and it is far from clear that Obama will suffer McGovern's fate. Yet the glib detachment of the Obama forces is eerily reminiscent of that earlier epoch. Here is a candidate with virtually no experience or record of legislative accomplishment, who lost most of his own party's core constituencies until his nomination was essentially assured. His proposal for dealing with terrorists is to sit down and talk with them while taking the military option, which is our chief negotiating prod, essentially off the table. His wife suggests she will only be proud of her country if it elects her husband. All this is before one even gets to his Third World origins and shadowy personal history, which reporters will inevitably unearth if only to demonstrate their lack of political bias. And this man is going to cruise to a forty-state victory over a popular war hero who is one of the best campaigners in recent history? It could be an interesting summer.


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