A Story of 1972
By Elliot Abrams at The Weekly Standard
The party has nominated someone who cannot win and should not be president of the United States. We anticipate a landslide defeat, and then a struggle to take the party back from his team and his supporters and win the following presidential election. Meanwhile, we need to figure out how to conduct ourselves.
No, not Donald Trump and the Republican party today. George McGovern and the Democratic party in 1972. I was in those days a law student and active supporter of Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, whose staff I joined when I got out of school. Jackson, who served in Congress from 1941 until his death in 1983, ran for president twice—in 1972 and 1976—and led the foreign policy hardliners in his party.
Watching conservative Republicans writhe in anguish over Trump, it’s worth looking back at what Jackson and the foreign policy hawks who surrounded and supported him—and detested McGovern and McGovernism—did back then.
Jackson’s biographer, Robert Kaufman, describes the time well in Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics (2000):
Jackson regarded McGovern’s impending triumph [at the Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, in July 1972] as an unmitigated disaster for the party. . . . [H]e stoutly resisted the inevitability of the McGovern candidacy by all means at his disposal right up until the Democrats nominated McGovern in July.
Supporters of Jackson and Humphrey, southerners, and organized labor had banded together in an abortive effort called “Anybody But McGovern.” . . . Even when Muskie and Humphrey formally bowed out, Henry Jackson would not. He received 536 votes for the nomination on the convention floor. I. W. Abel, head of the United Steelworkers of America, nominated him. Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia seconded the nomination.
So here’s a first lesson: Do not allow the Republican convention to be a coronation wherein Trump and Trumpism are unchallenged. There’s no reason others who won many delegates, from Rubio to Cruz to Kasich, should not have their names put in nomination. The party needs to be reminded that there are deep divisions, and Trump needs to be reminded of how many in the party oppose and even fear his nomination.
The Jackson biography then recounts an interesting story:
Carter had expressed his loathing for McGovern in several conversations with Jackson. . . . What happened just after McGovern received the nomination irrevocably colored Jackson’s view of Carter. . . . Carter called Jackson at 4 a.m. with this request: “Would Scoop be willing to approach McGovern to help get Carter selected as his vice president. . . . Scoop could not ever think of Carter again without a certain feeling of revulsion” [Jackson staffer and confidant Richard Perle said]. McGovern also found it off-putting that Carter solicited the vice presidential nomination so assiduously after saying such nasty things about him during the primary campaign.
There’s a second lesson: Watch out about the vice presidency and accepting other forms of favor from Trump. Obviously this episode was buried for many years, and Carter became the next nominee. But had he been McGovern’s running mate in that disaster of the 1972 campaign, would he have been nominated in 1976? Keep your distance.
Here’s a third lesson: Concentrate on Congress. Robert Kaufman writes, “Alarmed that Nixon’s coattails might even imperil the Democrats’ control of Congress, Jackson played a pivotal role in forming the Committee for the Reelection of a Democratic Congress.” That committee was full of supporters of Jackson and of Hubert Humphrey and chaired by the Democratic lawyer and fixer, and LBJ intimate, Robert Strauss. In the end, “The enormity of Nixon’s landslide had virtually no effect on the Democratic majorities in Congress.” Very few seats were lost.
And a fourth lesson: Seize the party machinery back immediately after the Trump defeat. Kaufman notes, “In December 1972, the election of Robert Strauss as chairman of the Democratic party over his more liberal rivals . . . appeared to presage a shift back from New Left politics to the mainstream of traditional liberalism.” Just a month after the election, the McGovernites were forced out of control of the Democratic National Committee. It was a close vote, with Strauss winning by a margin of three. That result was the product of a real campaign by Jackson and others, calling governors, mayors, and other DNC members. Conservatives should start planning in the fall for such an effort.
The fifth lesson may be more controversial: Whatever individual Republican voters, donors, and activists do about Trump as the nominee (support, oppose, go to a third party, vote for Clinton, or stay home), conservative Republican officeholders may have to give him a formal endorsement before they walk away. Jackson endorsed McGovern after the convention, when he became the official nominee. But, Kaufman says, “For most of the fall campaign, Jackson did little for McGovern beyond his initial endorsement.” He appeared with McGovern once, in Washington state, in what Kaufman records as “a tepid gesture at best.” It may be asking too much of Republican officeholders, especially in states Trump won in a primary, to oppose him. Nebraska’s Ben Sasse is showing that a principled opposition to the party’s nominee is indeed possible, but in other states and other situations, opposing the nominee may be a formula for political suicide.
A sixth lesson from that 1972 battle over the soul of the Democratic party is to organize. Already in December 1972, right after the Nixon landslide, the late Ben J. Wattenberg started organizing the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, a centrist group with a hardline foreign policy and support from organized labor—then led by George Meany, a Jackson and Humphrey backer who was a fierce anti-Communist—plus many other Jackson and Humphrey supporters in Congress, universities, and trade unions. (Amazing as it may seem today, the opposition to McGovern by Meany and some other labor leaders was so strong that the AFL-CIO did not endorse a candidate for president in 1972, after decades of automatic backing for the Democrat.) Four years later, in 1976, the Committee on the Present Danger was formed, by people such as (later director of central intelligence) William Casey, (later national security adviser) Richard V. Allen, (later United States ambassador to the United Nations) Jeane Kirkpatrick, (later secretary of state) George Shultz, and a large group of conservative and neoconservative intellectuals. Ronald Reagan himself was a member in 1979.
In 1972 and the rest of the 1970s, the question of changing parties did not arise for many of us. Jackson supporters were hawks, and the alternative—the détente policies of Nixon and Kissinger—were no attraction. The GOP of those days seemed to be the party of the Chamber of Commerce and the country club, not the conservative party William F. Buckley was fighting for—and finally got in 1980 when Ronald Reagan won the nomination and the presidency. Moreover, we thought we could win this battle within the Democratic party. It seemed we had in 1976, when the man who appeared to be second-most-hawkish after Jackson won the nomination—Jimmy Carter, who had as noted put Jackson’s name in nomination in 1972. It was only when Carter turned out to be following his own brand of McGovernism on foreign policy that, in 1980, many of us (myself included) supported the Republican nominee and—whether before or after the election—made the switch.
Today, that same situation will obtain: Conservatives seem unlikely to switch to a Democratic party whose heart and soul are with Bernie Sanders and whose candidate will be Hillary Clinton. Nothing we want is to be found in that party. Nor did we in 1972 believe a third-party candidacy was a smart maneuver, again because we believed the Democratic party could be won back—and thought a thorough trouncing of McGovern would be useful in winning it back. Republicans who will never vote for Trump need to decide whether the best way to win the party back is to support a conservative third-party candidate who can powerfully make the case for our principles or just vote for the down-ticket races, write in Ben Sasse for president, and let Trump fail colossally. In 1972 and 1973 there were complaints that people like Scoop Jackson had deserted McGovern, but the size of his defeat made it obvious that a few more endorsements or rallies would have done little to ameliorate his crushing loss.
The final lesson of the 1972 campaign and what followed it is that arguments matter. The Jackson Democrats had views: strong arguments about American foreign policy and strong critiques of McGovern and for that matter the détente policies the Republicans were following in those years. We argued and argued, and when we saw Ronald Reagan making some of the same arguments we jumped on his bandwagon. Republicans who oppose Trump need to keep making the arguments that candidates like Rubio and Cruz and Bush made this year unsuccessfully. It didn’t work this time but it can work next time, when voters see Trump collapse—and when they see an increasingly dangerous world and a Clinton administration wedded to a bloated federal government as the solution to every problem. Next time, in 2020, we’ll have had 12 years of Obama and Clinton, Hillary will be in her mid-seventies, Trump will be gone, and a new generation of Republican leaders like Rubio and Cruz and Ryan and Cotton and Haley and Sasse will still be in their forties.
The time to start organizing is now, and the time to make the best possible arguments to Republican voters is . . . over and over again, now, and after November, and in 2017, and right through to 2020.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
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