George McGovern and the Tea Party

We were young, assured, and ready to vote our passionate convictions. True believers, all of us knew -- with absolute surety -- that we had the wind of rising public opinion at our back, that history was with us, and it would prove how right our cause was. The party establishment had first opposed, and then divorced us, but who cared? Enthusiasm, which we had in abundance, was sure to carry the day. Thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of Americans showed up at our rallies, to cheer for the cause. We knew they were a majority of America, and we knew how they would vote in a presidential election. After all, so many from our ranks had made it to Congress, to the Senate, and to governors' mansions.

This sounds a lot like the feelings one gets from the Tea Party today, with their victory in 2010, their high expectations for 2012 and the future. But I'm describing November 1972 and the anti-war movement. I was a senior in college, and about to vote in my first presidential election. The candidate, of course, was George McGovern. Then, like now, we were the insurgents, but were convinced we had destiny on our side, just like Scott Walker does today.

Of course, we know how it worked out back then. McGovern lost to Richard Nixon, in one of the biggest landslides of twentieth century American history. What lessons does this experience have for the right today, and what does it foretell?

First, why did McGovern lose so badly?

There are a lot of strong reasons the Democrat went down to defeat that year, mistakes made by both the candidate and the party. But the bottom line was this: McGovern was too much our candidate, and not enough the American peoples'. Don't get me wrong; I loved George McGovern back them, and still think of him fondly. But as a presidential candidate for all Americans, he was a poor choice. The senator from South Dakota may have been true to the values I and others shared, but he was out of step with what the majority of Americans believed, and what they wanted the future to look like. Not just our faction, but fifty-one percent or more. He extolled our principles powerfully, but did not match up with those held by the bulk of American voters. McGovern could win primaries where a minority held sway, but not a general election.

The Tea Party segment of the Republican Party may be heading in the same direction, to a similar result of short-term victory and larger defeat. They are new to politics, full of excitement, and full of themselves, just like we were forty years ago. If they have a problem in choosing a nominee, it is only that there is no one clear standout; rather, there is an abundance of possible, ideologically correct possibilities.

My guess is that the primaries and election season will be fascinating, with the most open Republican process in many decades. Anything can happen, unlike in past years, where the more disciplined of the two party's usually had a front runner lined up by this point. This time, the new kids on the block could steal the show from the party establishment, and nominate one of their own, rather than an aged warrior who paid dues as he rose to prominence. Just like what we pulled off back in 1972. The schedule even works in their favor, to give their champion a strong running start: launching in Iowa, with its deeply conservative Republican electorate; then to New Hampshire, a right wing bastion; and on to South Carolina, the original insurgent state. Before the party regulars can rally, the Tea Party hero could have a powerful edge.

If -- and this is only an if -- that happens, it will not go well for them in the national election. Once they nominate a true believer, someone no one could every accuse of being a RINO (Republican In Name Only), their candidate will be facing the ultimate centrist, plus an experienced campaigner and a skilled media presence. Much as I might gnash my teeth, Barack Obama will move to the center, and with grand rhetoric, ably portray himself as the best candidate to uphold core American values. The Republican candidate, beloved by a small minority and well financed by the Koch brothers, will fight the good fight, and be marginalized by November. It won't matter to him, either, or to those who devoutly support him, because he will have stayed true to his ideals and to those of his followers. Conservative historians will extol his pioneering campaign, just as they do Barry Goldwater's. And Barack Obama will be starting his second term in the White House.

If the Republicans make the same mistake I and my friends did in 1972, the Democrats will win handily next year.