Do We Still Have to Worry About the McGovern Problem?

In the 1990s, Clintonism was all about avoiding the fate of McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis. Two decades later, is that still an issue?

If you google “Sanders McGovern”, you’ll find a fairly large number of articles debating whether Bernie Sanders is or isn’t the second coming of George McGovern, the anti-establishment, left-leaning Democrat who suffered a historic landslide loss to Richard Nixon in 1972.

Some writers think he is, and Democrats will be setting themselves up for another historic loss if they nominate Bernie. Others think McGovern is such ancient history that bringing him up just shows how stuck in the past the Democratic establishment is. And a few claim that Sanders is McGovern in a good way: A Sanders victory could at long last vindicate McGovern, the way Reagan’s victory vindicated Goldwater.

Reading those articles, I keep recalling a quote from the 19th-century mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss: “I have had my solutions for a long time, but I do not yet know how I am to arrive at them.” In every case, it looks to me like the author started with a desired conclusion, then looked for ways to justify it.

I think the question deserves something better than that, so I’m going to do the exact opposite: I’m going to write down everything I know about this issue and leave you with a cliffhanger at the end. I’ve thought about this and done some research. In the end, though, I have hopes and I have fears, but certainty escapes me. I can’t promise you that a gamble on Bernie Sanders would win or lose in November. All I can do is draw a clearer picture of what we’d be betting on.

Where I start. I’m a somewhat left-leaning Democrat who also really wants to win in November. If I could snap my fingers and install single-payer health care or a carbon tax, I absolutely would. But I also think ObamaCare is a huge improvement on the health care system we had in 2009, I’m glad we’re finally starting to do something (though not nearly enough) about climate change, and I’m afraid of losing all that under President Trump or Cruz.

I went to one of the early Bernie rallies (in Portsmouth in May) and I definitely felt the Bern when he talked not just about health care and the environment, but also about tough regulations for Wall Street, creating jobs with a big push to rebuild our infrastructure, investing in college for our young people, and reducing the influence that big-money donors have on our political system. The growing inequality of wealth looks to me like a problem that isn’t going to fix itself, and will destroy the American way of life if it goes much further.

But I’m also not willing to sign up for a Charge of the Light Brigade. If asking for the moon means that the voters will give us nothing, and that instead the gradual progress we’ve made under President Obama will be undone, then count me out. If that’s the choice, then more gradual progress under another President Clinton sounds fine to me. On the other hand, if that’s not the choice, if we really could have the kind of revolutionary change Sanders calls for, then I don’t want to leave those possibilities on the table. So I voted for Bernie in the New Hampshire primary, but with similar uncertainty to what TPM’s John Judis is feeling as the Maryland primary approaches.

For me it’s a real question: Is another McGovern-type loss really something to worry about, or is it a Boogie Man we’ve been afraid of for far too long already?

Ultimately, we can’t be certain about the answers unless we run the experiment: nominate Bernie and see what happens. But it ought to at least be possible to sharpen our understanding of the questions, and to know what we’re counting on if we decide to take the chance.

What the McGovern Problem isn’t. Often the McGovern Problem gets stated too simplistically, which makes it easy to shoot down: Democrats can’t run a candidate who’s too liberal. It’s as if the White House were a roller coaster, with a sign outside saying: “You must be at least this conservative to enter.”

If that’s the problem, then liberals are right to refuse it any consideration, because otherwise we give the game away before it starts. Important issues like single-payer or a less belligerent foreign policy are off the table by definition; we’re not even allowed to make our case to the country.

Republicans didn’t accept that lesson from their Goldwater loss in 1964. They continued making their case, and by 1980 the Goldwater wing of the GOP was electing President Reagan.

History shows that American political sensibilities change. Ideas that are “too radical” in one era — even liberal ideas like Social Security or child labor laws or the 40-hour week — can become common sense in the next. Who’s to say that free college or converting the economy to sustainable energy won’t join that list?

Plus, if Democrats can’t talk about what we believe in, the public will quite correctly perceive that we’re hiding something, and even a centrist Democratic ticket will face a suspicious electorate: What aren’t they telling us? What secret socialist agenda are Democrats planning to spring on the country after Inauguration Day?

What the McGovern Problem is. The problem I have in mind is much more specific than just being “too liberal”: Republicans have a tried-and-true game plan for running against liberal Democrats. A bunch of negative stereotypes sit in the public mind waiting to be activated, and they seem to work really well to cut our candidates off at the knees.

So the problem isn’t just that McGovern lost and then Mondale lost and then Dukakis lost. It’s that they lost in almost exactly the same way. There’s a buzzsaw attack waiting in the fall campaign, one that our candidates don’t face in the primaries, because it doesn’t work on a purely Democratic electorate. But we know it’s coming.

The issue that confronts every potential Democratic nominee, the one that gets labeled electability, isn’t “Are you too liberal?” but “Are you marching straight into the buzzsaw?” When the predictable attack comes — the attack you haven’t had to deal with at all in the primaries — will your candidacy survive it?

But even as we consider this question, we need to remember that the Dukakis wipeout was 28 years ago. If you’re one of the young voters whose energy is fueling the Sanders campaign, there hasn’t been a real test of the McGovern Problem — or a Republican presidential landslide — in your lifetime. Maybe the old dragon has lost its teeth by now, and all those gray-haired Hillary voters are quivering in front of shadows on the wall.

How can we know if that’s the case? I think we need to tell the story from the beginning. Then we’ll be in a better position to judge whether it’s ancient history or history that’s about to repeat itself.

It starts with LBJ. If we’re going to decide how relevant McGovern is in 2016, we need to go back a little further, to the last big push for progressive change in America: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

When LBJ assumed the presidency late in 1963, he was riding a wave of national grief over President Kennedy’s assassination. The Democrats already controlled Congress, and then in 1964 the Republicans played into Johnson’s hands by nominating their most polarizing candidate, Barry Goldwater. After a huge landslide with long coattails, LBJ began 1965 with a national mandate and 2-1 majorities in both houses.

He got a lot done. The accomplishments of 1964-1966 make a stunning list, especially from the gridlocked perspective of 2016. The Social Security Act of 1965 created both Medicare and Medicaid in one fell swoop. By itself that was a bigger change than anything that has happened under Obama, but Congress just passed it and moved on. The bill got bipartisan support, wasn’t filibustered, and Johnson didn’t have to spend the rest of his term fighting back attempts to repeal it or block it in the courts.

Jim Crow finally ended: Congress passed the 24th Amendment (that banned poll taxes), the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. Johnson began affirmative action for government jobs by executive order.

He declared War on Poverty: In addition to Medicaid, Johnson created food stamps, and funded urban renewal programs to clean out the slums. When Bill Clinton “ended welfare as we know it” in the 1990s, what we knew was LBJ’s version of welfare.

The backlash. The Vietnam War is usually remembered as Johnson’s undoing, but the backlash against the Great Society would have been a thing regardless. The race riots of the 1960s led to a narrative that blacks were “ungrateful” for Johnson’s anti-poverty programs and the advances in civil rights. The riots combined with rising crime and the Supreme Court’s focus on the rights of defendants to create the impression that criminals were being coddled and government lacked the will to defend public order. The phrase bleeding heart liberal referred to someone who had less sympathy for you than for the ghetto-raised black teen-ager who was mugging you.

School desegregation was finally hitting the North in a big way, leading professional-class whites to flee to the suburbs, and leaving the white working class behind to deal with urban racial conflict. Affirmative action led to the claim that restless blacks were being bought off by giving away the opportunities of working-class whites. (After all, a black kid who got into Harvard through affirmative action wasn’t acing out some legacy admission like a Kennedy.) The phrase limousine liberal referred to well-to-do Democrats who could afford to be idealistic about race and poverty, because they were insulated from the social impact of their programs.

Tax-and-spend liberal didn’t catch on until the Reagan years, but that stereotype also comes from the Great Society backlash: If there was a problem, LBJ was likely to throw money at it. The logic — that we were a rich country with way too many poor people, so we could fix things by moving money around — may seem a little simplistic now, given the complex social dynamics of poverty. (In hindsight, urban renewal  looks especially naive. Its high-rise housing projects quickly became worse than the slums they replaced.) But that’s the kind of thing you can’t know until you’ve tried it.

By 1968, the Democratic Party was badly divided. The only possible unifying figure, Bobby Kennedy, was assassinated. The Chicago convention turned violent. A third-party run by George Wallace split off what in FDR’s day had been “the solid South”. Even in the North, Wallace appealed to the kind of working-class whites who also had once been reliable Democrats (the kind who support Trump now). LBJ’s VP, Hubert Humphrey, split the rest of the vote almost down the middle with Richard Nixon, but Nixon got a slight plurality and an electoral college win.

McGovern/Nixon. George McGovern came to national attention at the 1968 convention as the leader of Bobby Kennedy’s orphaned delegates. By 1972, he was the first candidate to understand the new rules that made the primaries decisive. (Humphrey had gotten the 1968 nomination without ever entering the primaries. 1968 was the last hurrah of the smoke-filled-room era, when party leadership could do pretty much whatever it wanted.) He ran an insurgent campaign that portrayed the existing Democratic establishment as corrupt. That culminated at the 1972 convention, when the McGovern delegates disqualified Mayor Daley’s Illinois delegation in favor of a rebel slate led by Jesse Jackson. (Without the backing of the Daley machine, McGovern managed only 41% of the vote in Illinois in the fall. He won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia.)

In terms of policy, McGovern wanted to push the Great Society social programs further, while rejecting the militaristic Kennedy/Johnson foreign policy that had led to Vietnam. With Wallace out of the picture (after being wounded in an assassination attempt), Nixon knew that a two-party race depended on capturing the Democrats who had defected to Wallace in 1968. So the key arguments in the campaign came from an organization called Democrats for Nixon.

DfN attacked McGovern on two fronts. First, his defense plan would leave the country dangerously weak.

And second, his social programs would tax working people (pictured as a white male construction worker) and give money to undeserving people (who aren’t pictured, but are easily imagined to be blacks or young white hippies).

Less explicitly, Nixon’s campaign associated McGovern with the counterculture: people who took drugs and despised soldiers and got involved in violent protests. Nixon himself claimed support from the “great silent majority“, people who did their jobs and raised their kids and lived by the old-fashioned American values that the counterculture rejected. The flag and patriotism belonged to conservatives; they were weapons to wield against liberals (literally, in this Pulitzer-winning photo), who should “love it or leave it“.

The anti-liberal formula. By 1976, the Republican Party had been stained by Watergate, and Jimmy Carter, a born-again Navy veteran from Georgia, won by projecting an image very different from McGovern. But Reagan unseated Carter in 1980, and in 1984, Walter Mondale challenged him. Mondale was the candidate of the Democratic establishment, which by this point was the Great Society playing defense. Reagan successfully attacked him as a liberal, and in 1988 Reagan’s VP, George H. W. Bush, ran a similar — and similarly successful — campaign against Mike Dukakis.

By now the anti-liberal attack was a formula based on a few well-defined stereotypes:

  • Liberals won’t protect us from foreign enemies. This is usually phrased in terms of naivety: Liberals want to cut defense spending and avoid military intervention because they foolishly trust treaties and organizations like the UN. They believe our enemies are like us and want to come to mutually beneficial agreements. They don’t understand that our enemies are truly evil and can only be controlled through strength.

For example, Reagan ran this commercial against Mondale. It starts “There’s a bear in the woods. For some people, the bear is easy to see. Others don’t see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame.”

  • Liberals won’t protect us from criminals at home. Again, they are naive about evil. They believe crime is a social problem they can solve with more welfare spending, rather than a moral problem that requires police and jails.

That led to the revolving-door ad Bush used against Dukakis.

  • Liberals don’t believe in America. They’re not patriotic, and they want to retell American history to make us the bad guys. They have no faith in the economic individualism that made this country rich, and keep telling us we should be more like France or Sweden.

Bush painted Dukakis as against the Pledge of Allegiance, and somehow a false rumor circulated that Dukakis’ wife had once burned an American flag.

  •  Liberals want to weaken moral values. The exact content of this attack varies from era to era, depending on what the moral problem of the day is. Abortion is a constant, but there’s also pornography, video games, rock music, drugs, homosexuality, promiscuity, and transgenderism. Usually, this is related somehow to religion, with the implication that whatever religion a liberal claims to practice is actually just a smoke screen that hides an underlying atheism, relativism, nihilism, or hedonism.
  • Liberals think they’re smarter than you are and want to make your decisions for you. Liberals are book-smart but don’t have common sense. They want to tell you who you can hire, which customers you have to serve, what you can drive, what you can eat or drink, how to discipline your children, what words you are allowed to say, and so on. Rhetoric about “the liberal elite” or “political correctness” invokes this stereotype.
  • Liberals want to raise taxes on working people to buy votes from lazy people. Nixon’s construction-worker ad became a paradigm. Mitt Romney’s “47%” hurt him only because it was too explicit. We still hear about “free stuff“, “dependence on government“, and “makers and takers“.

Bill Clinton and the New Democrats. If you didn’t live through it, it’s hard to communicate just how depressing the Dukakis debacle was. Entering the fall campaign, Democrats hadn’t thought of Dukakis as a McGovern-style left-winger. (Jesse Jackson had been the candidate of the party’s left wing, and Dukakis had resisted pressure to pick him as VP.) On the national scene, Dukakis was a fresh face who should have been able to slough off past stereotypes. He didn’t have a big spending program, wasn’t pushing a tax increase, and his Greek-immigrant-pride thing should have shielded him from the patriotism issue. One post-convention poll had Dukakis ahead of Bush 55%-38%.

But when the Republicans unleashed the formulaic anti-liberal attack, Dukakis proved just as vulnerable as McGovern and Mondale. His poll numbers quickly collapsed, and Bush (who had never seemed like a particularly strong candidate) didn’t just win, he romped his way to 426 electoral votes.

After 1988, Democrats had a sense of “What do we have to do?” The answer came from Bill Clinton. You can’t understand Clintonism without grasping that post-Dukakis despair.

Clinton recognized that the problem was as much image as substance: It wasn’t liberalism itself, it was getting tagged with the liberal stereotypes. You had to compromise somewhat, but you could still have broadly progressive values. You couldn’t stop Republicans from throwing the McGovern/Mondale/Dukakis attacks at you, but (like Jimmy Carter in 1976) you could still win if you maintained an image that the stereotypes wouldn’t stick to. Far-right conservatives might still believe them, but the swing voters wouldn’t.

Clinton wasn’t a “Massachusetts liberal” like Dukakis: He was a Southern Baptist with a drawl who easily projected a good-old-boy sensibility. He declared himself to be “a new kind of Democrat”, and he shifted Democratic rhetoric across the board. He “felt our pain”, but always justified his programs as fairness rather than appealing to compassion, and he rooted his case in respect for traditional American values like hard work.

We’ll think of the faith of our parents that was instilled in us here in America, the idea that if you work hard and play by the rules, you’ll be rewarded with a good life for yourself and a better chance for your children. Filled with that faith, generations of Americans have worked long hours on their jobs and passed along powerful dreams to their sons and daughters. Many of us can remember our own parents working long hours on their jobs and then coming home and helping us with our homework. The American dream has always been a better life for people who are willing to work for it.

He also regularly did something infuriating if you found yourself on the wrong end of it. Like the kid who escapes bullying by finding the mob some weaker kid to bully, Clinton escaped the liberal stereotype by projecting it onto other people. A Sister Souljah moment (also sometimes known as hippie punching) is when a center-left politician repudiates someone further to the left as a way of establishing his non-scariness. (The phrase comes from Clinton’s denunciation of a black hip-hop artist.)

Clinton made a career out of stealing Republican issues and putting his own spin on them: Balance the budget? Reform welfare? He’d do it, and if Republicans wanted to oppose him they’d have to move even further to the right. In retrospect, some of Clinton’s “accomplishments” — Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Defense of Marriage Act, and his crime bill — can only be defended by observing that something even worse probably would have happened if he hadn’t gotten out in front of a popular movement that was gaining momentum.

He compromised, but he won, and it mattered that he won. That’s why Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are on the Supreme Court rather than two more Clarence Thomases. While Clinton sometimes rattled his saber and kept defense spending relatively high, America managed to go eight years without launching a major ground war. He left office with low unemployment, low inflation, a budget surplus — and a 66% approval rating.

Every Democratic presidential nominee since has in one way or another learned from Clinton’s example, and has maneuvered to project a centrist image. (I believe that’s why Obama drops his g’s.) In that time, the Democratic candidate has lost the popular vote only in 2004, and even that election was close.

One measure of the success of the Clinton strategy is that each recent Democratic nominee has been attacked in some way that was uniquely personal, rather than just being fed to the generic liberal-killing buzzsaw. Bill Clinton was “Slick Willy”, Al Gore was so wooden you wouldn’t want to have a beer with him, John Kerry didn’t deserve his medals, and Barack Obama was a shallow celebrity who palled around with terrorists. The too-liberal case was still there, but it didn’t stick for a majority of voters, so Republicans had to try other attacks.

The downside of Clintonism. As George Lakoff and others have often pointed out, there is no centrist worldview. So while stealing Republican issues and hippie-punching figures to your left may put you in a position to rein in something really bad — to turn, say, a constitutional amendment defining marriage into DOMA, which the Supreme Court (with Breyer and Ginsburg in the majority) could later find unconstitutional — along the way you reinforce the overall conservative frame, and marginalize anyone who promotes a liberal frame. That may win elections in the short term, but makes it hard to build a movement.

For example, Obama’s attempt in 2011 to strike a “grand bargain” with John Boehner to cut the long-term deficit was a Clintonian move that backfired: Not only did the bargain not happen, but treating the manufactured 2011 budget crisis as a negotiating opportunity set up the much scarier 2013 game of chicken over the debt ceiling. Obama’s grand-bargain offer legitimized the deficit as a more important concern than creating jobs, as well as the idea that long-term cuts in Social Security and Medicare might be the solution.

Even if you take a Clintonesque incremental view of change, the Democratic Party needs its idealists to produce the long-term vision that gives the party substance. Maybe we will only make progress in small steps, but somebody still needs to provide a clear vision of where we’re trying to go.

So what about Bernie? Remember: whether or not Sanders “is McGovern” isn’t about whether he can be tied to a label like liberal or even socialist. Of course he can. Everybody knows he’s challenging Clinton from the left and has called himself a socialist; that’s baked into his public image already. It hasn’t hurt him yet in those national polls that show him beating Trump and Cruz by margins far larger than Hillary’s. (One recent poll has Sanders beating Trump by 20%.)

The more important questions are first, when Republicans begin attacking him with the tried-and-true formula, will the anti-liberal stereotypes stick? And second, does that still matter the way it did in 1972, 1984, or 1988?

I think several of the stereotypes could stick to Bernie, sometimes fairly and sometimes unfairly.

  • Foreign enemies. So far, Sanders’ entire defense-and-foreign-policy focus has been on what he hasn’t done, wouldn’t do or wouldn’t have done: He wouldn’t have invaded Iraq. He wouldn’t give the NSA such a free hand to gather intelligence on Americans. He wouldn’t torture. He wouldn’t keep Guantanamo open. He doesn’t support defense spending at the current levels, and opposes certain specific weapons systems.

And none of that by itself is a problem. (In fact, I agree with him, and Hillary agrees with a lot of it.) But the majority of Americans are not ready to stop being a superpower. So in a general-election campaign, Sanders will at some point have to pivot back to what he would do: What level of defense spending does he support? What weapons does that buy? What Sanders Doctrine describes the situations where is he willing to use those weapons to defend our country, our allies, or our interests? (Example: Putin decides to conquer the rest of Ukraine. What do you do?)

When he does have to state a positive position on defense, is he then open to a Nixonian attack where a hand sweeps forces off the table? Is he convincing as a possible Commander in Chief, or does he look like Mike Dukakis in a tank?

  • Crime. The problem is similar: So far we’ve heard about the things Sanders wants to undo: He wants to put fewer people in jail. He wants to stop police brutality. And that’s all good: We went overboard both on the War on Drugs and on the scary-black-people image. We’ve been way too eager to interpret dark skin as a predictor of criminality, and to see prison as the solution to our fears, especially the irrational ones.

But crime is also real and has real victims. Americans want to hear that their president is serious about protecting them. Can Bernie provide that assurance? There are two Willie-Hortonish avenues of attack here: violence connected (at least in the public mind) with Black Lives Matter, like the Baltimore riots; and crimes committed by undocumented immigrants (which do exist, even though in general the undocumented are not a big crime risk).

Again, there are answers to such attacks, but (as the Reagan-era adage has it) “If you’re explaining you’re losing.” When somebody shows you a real woman who has been raped by an immigrant, quoting the statistics on immigrant crime is not a compelling response.

  • Tax and spend. Sanders admits that his Medicare-for-all plan would raise middle-class taxes. To be fair, middle-class families would still benefit from his plan, because their healthcare costs should go down by more than their taxes go up. But voters are quicker to believe in taxes than in the benefits they fund. (That’s why ObamaCare was so vulnerable in the 2010 midterm elections.) Plus, not even Sanders’ supporters are comfortable with their taxes going up. And again, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. Look for an ad in which layabouts of various races endorse Bernie and look forward to the benefits they expect from him, while somebody else works thanklessly to clean up after them.
  • Moral values. The problem here is religion. Sanders admits that he is “not particularly religious” and, though a Jew by ethnicity and culture, does not belong to any congregation or synagogue and does not regularly attend services of any type.

That doesn’t kill you in a Democratic primary, and at various times Bernie has spoken about his beliefs in a heartfelt way that works fairly well for a liberal audience: “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.” But to a lot of the country, that Spinoza-like position is just a fancy kind of atheism, and polls consistently show that atheism (moreso than even Islam) is a deal-breaker for many voters.

I picture one of those man-in-the-street interview ads, where somebody says, “He claims to be Jewish, but he sounds like an atheist to me.” That’s a two-fer: Not only does it use the A-word, but it dog-whistles to anti-Semites by reminding them that at best Sanders is a Jew.

  • Thinks he’s smarter than you. Smart is good, if you handle it right. Bill Clinton is a Rhodes scholar. Barack Obama was president of the law review at Harvard. But both of them know how to use their considerable personal charm so as not to seem too smart or too stuck-up about it. Both have that good-teacher ability to answer a question confidently without making the questioner feel stupid.

I don’t see that in Bernie. When challenged, he has a tendency to raise his voice and wag his finger. If I were debating Sanders, I’d be trying to bring out the side of his personality that talked down to Vermont voters in this Q&A event. (“Have you heard of ISIS?” he demands.)

Smarter-than-you is a quality that unlocks other parts of the liberal stereotype. The root Republican message is that they want you to be free to make your own choices in the marketplace, while Democrats want government to choose for you. (Unfortunately, the unregulated marketplace Republicans champion often leaves you with no good choices. What good is a menu of dozens of healthcare plans, if none of the ones you can afford will keep you from going bankrupt if you get sick?) Democrats need to communicate that they appreciate the awesome presumption that regulation involves, and that they will use that power with humility. But when Bernie Sanders thinks he knows the right answer, humility seems far from his mind.

  • Believing in America. A big piece of the Clinton/New Democrat thing was being able to invoke patriotism without sounding fake or hokey. Can Sanders do that? Bernie often compares the U.S. unfavorably to more socialistic European countries like Denmark or France, and if  you dip into the archives, he’s also said good things about Cuba and Nicaragua (when the Sandinistas were in power and the U.S. was funding the opposition). Again, a man-in-the-street ad could be effective: “I wonder why he doesn’t run for president of France?”

Does it still matter? The most convincing point in the Sanders-is-not-McGovern articles is that times have changed. Thom Hartman writes:

Comparing Sanders to McGovern assumes that the country is in a similar state now as it was 44 years ago, and that’s just not true. … [In 1972] the middle class was much larger, and it was doing much better than it is today. And so the older generation voted for Nixon, they voted to keep things on track, because they simply didn’t feel as screwed over as we did in the younger generation.

And Dave Johnson says that the old manipulative tricks won’t work in the Twitter era:

Sanders’ mass appeal, big crowds and enthusiasm in spite of a virtual media blackout shows that America has grown up a lot since 1972. Thanks to the Internet, we are able to communicate past media manipulation and organize. Many people are now well aware of how Republicans use racial and other divisions to misdirect and manipulate people from seeing what is being done to us.

There’s also a demographic argument: The electorate that responded to George Bush’s racist dog whistles in 1988 was much whiter than America is in 2016. When Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was organizing against Mondale in 1984, the percentage of Christians was far higher and “Nones” far lower than it is today.

So their argument boils down to this: In a less white, more secular America, where the sufferings of the middle class and the planet are far more apparent, and citizens have better ways to figure out who to vote for than watching 30-second TV ads, the progressive message is more compelling than the old liberal stereotypes. Healthcare as a right, free college, the threat of global warming, and the rest of the Sanders message will overpower the false image of wimpy, naive, America-hating, too-smart-for-their-own-good liberals.

And here, I think we reach the point where the evidence in inconclusive: America is different now, but is it different enough? Quantitative questions — questions that center on “how much” rather than yes or no — are hard to answer without running the experiment. There’s a risk and there’s a reward. How to weigh them against each other is something we all have to decide for ourselves.

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  • carolannie1949  On April 18, 2016 at 9:58 am

    If we elected Obama based on a changed era, we may be able to elect Sanders. Or is it a bridge too far?

  • philebersole  On April 18, 2016 at 11:18 am

    I believe in voting for the candidate who comes closest to standing for what I believe in.

    I leave the strategic voting – voting based on what you think other voters will do – to others.

    I want to be one of those the strategic voters have to take into account.

    • jh  On April 19, 2016 at 3:58 pm

      that’s me during the primary. When it comes to the real presidential election, I vote strategically. I don’t pine over what could have been or should have been. I deal with the reality of two or three flawed candidates and I pick the one I feel is closest to what I want. For me, it will be the democrat candidate. None of the remaining republican presidential candidates represent a vision of America that I want to live in.

    • weeklysift  On April 22, 2016 at 8:25 am

      Taking this argument to its logical extreme, we should all cast write-in votes for ourselves. None of us would win, but who cares? We’d be sure we were voting for someone who shares our beliefs 100%.

      I don’t see democracy as fundamentally being about expressing our views. I think it’s about building a governing coalition, one that accomplishes as many of our goals as we can manage.

    • philebersole  On April 22, 2016 at 8:51 am

      Of course no candidate represents my views 100 percent and none ever will, but I will not vote for a candidate unless they offer me a positive reason — that is, a path away from our Hunger Games economy, our Big Brother government and perpetual war. If somebody wants me to be part of a governing coalition, that’s my price.

  • John Bari  On April 18, 2016 at 12:14 pm

    I think at this point I’d be a lot more concerned about the Humphrey problem.

  • Abby Hafer  On April 18, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    You forgot Eugene McCarthy. No account of ’68 is complete without that. He was pretty much the ONLY anti-Vietnam war candidate.


    On Mon, Apr 18, 2016 at 9:35 AM, The Weekly Sift wrote:

    > weeklysift posted: “In the 1990s, Clintonism was all about avoiding the > fate of McGovern, Mondale, and Dukakis. Two decades later, is that still an > issue? If you google “Sanders McGovern”, you’ll find a fairly large number > of articles debating whether Bernie Sanders” >

  • Abby Hafer  On April 18, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    The flag-as-weapon photo is from the busing era in MA. (1972)


  • coastcontact  On April 18, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Forget the past! The large (really Huge) crowds at Trump and Sanders rallies are a message that cannot be ignored. I believe that the majority of Americans are disgusted and disappointed with government. Most of us see gridlock. No one wants more of the same that Clinton and Kasich represent. This situation is propelling those candidates calling for change. It was Obama’s “Hope and Change” message that brought him the presidency. Unfortunately he did not have the skills that would enable him to bring about the change. Donald Trump does have many of those needed skills thanks to his business experience. Bernie Sanders has not displayed those skills. So despite the recent polls showing Clinton (the likely Democratic nominee) winning against Trump, I anticipate that the fall campaign will be about Clinton’s inability to overcome the tag of more of the same that didn’t work in the past. Trump’s name calling campaign style will win just as it did against Carson, Jeb and Rubio.

    • Cthulhu  On April 19, 2016 at 11:27 am

      “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

      The gridlock we see now is the direct result of lazy-ass Democrats staying home in 2010 and 2014.

    • jh  On April 19, 2016 at 4:03 pm

      So how would it chance if a Bernie or a Trump won? How would that help the functioning of the government? Would the republican majority suddenly roll over and play with a Bernie win? Or a Trump win? Would the democrats surge in mid-year elections? (possible though slightly improbably given the historically conservative tinge of mid-year elections. Usually democrats only come out during presidential years which is a grave mistake.)

      What you are requesting is an emperor or a tyrant and I have no desire for that kind of person in power. What I would want is a party (cough republicans) to grow up and start behaving like responsible adults. Too often the Bernie/Trump voters blame both parties for the gridlock. That is false. That is wrong. The republicans are the obstructionist group that have done their damnedest to destroy the proper functioning of this Obama presidency. From government shutdowns over debt ceilings to numerous attempts to repeal Obamacare during the Great Recession, the blame goes primarily to the republican party. If you want a proper functioning government, the electorate should vote democrat for 2-3 election cycles. That would give the republican party a much needed spanking.

  • Stephen Crews Wylder  On April 18, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    A better comparison to Sanders would not be George McGovern, but Gene McCarthy, who appealed almost exclusively to affluent, well-educated liberals. He beat Robert Kennedy in Oregon, a place one of his staffers referred to as “one big suburb.” And when he lost the nomination, he sulked, giving Humphrey a less-than-lukewarm endorsement shortly before the November election. George McGovern backed Humphrey-Muskie, which surely helped him win the ’72 nomination. McCarthy arguably gave us President Richard Nixon. I don’t expect Sanders to sulk, assuming Clinton wins the nomination, but whether he can bring his supporters around is now questionable.

    As for Sanders’ prospects as the Democratic nominee, I’m doubtful. Of course I’d support him, but I don’t believe a self-described socialist could win even against a crypto-fascist like Trump or a Dominionist theocrat such as Cruz.

  • Salpy  On April 18, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    Informative article. Couldn’t help but think of this scene though:

    Why don’t the Democrats have a buzzsaw of their own? I am of that younger generation who never experienced the sweeps discussed above. But, while growing up, I always had this impression that while the Democrats are better at governing, the Republicans are more efficient, better organized, and have an insanely good PR machine, so of course they stay in power. And I always wondered, where is our buzzsaw?

    • weeklysift  On April 18, 2016 at 2:36 pm

      One of the things that comes through in Jane Mayer’s “Dark Money” is the effect large amounts of money can have over time. Democrats manage to raise money for campaigns, but not for the kind of infrastructure that can construct a long-term PR strategy and carry it out over decades. There’s no liberal buzzsaw for the same reason there’s no liberal Fox News or Heritage Foundation or Americans for Prosperity.

      • Lou Doench  On April 20, 2016 at 3:14 pm

        That’s something Driftglass at The Professional Left Podcast is always lamenting. There always seems to be loads of cash to keep talentless hacks like Ron Fournier of David Brooks employed to prop up the status quo or rightwing ghouls like Joe Scarborough and the Fox News gang spewing propaganda, but liberal commentators pretty much live by bake sales nowadays.

      • weeklysift  On April 22, 2016 at 8:27 am

        Imagine a liberal pundit whose predictions proved wrong as often as Bill Kristol’s have. Where would he work?

  • Guest  On April 18, 2016 at 5:25 pm

    I disagree, coastcontact, on forgetting the past. As Joe Biden once reminded us, past is prologue. McGovern had a disastrous VP pick, but the bigger factor, and one largely passed over here, was party elites and the money. AFL-CIO leader George Meany, who was a pro-war corporatist not without some sway with Democratic party elites and organizational resources (sound familiar?) deprived McGovern of any support, leaving Nixon unhindered to sew up all the important big money corporate backing. Paul Heideman provides a must-read article for anyone curious about the McGovern question explaining this and more:

    And Sanders has been getting the republican buzzsaw, wielded by the Clinton camp. Far more scary than hypothetical Bernie attacks, is what Clinton might get. An indictment over her emails might seem far fetched, why would someone rich and powerful be held accountable?, but a recommendation for indictment that gets waved away could play even worse. And there’s always a chance someone releases one of her Wall Street speeches, and it’s Mitt Romney’s 47% all over again. She’s beating everyone but Kasich in the head to head match up polls right now, but that math could get worse in a hurry.

    • weeklysift  On April 22, 2016 at 8:29 am

      As I’ve discussed on this blog before, there is no basis for an indictment of Hillary. It’s a right-wing fantasy that doesn’t deserve the attention of serious people.

  • cnminter  On April 18, 2016 at 6:22 pm

    “I find Sanders to be the most hypocritical, dangerous, and downright hateful: he knows Clinton is a liberal, and very liberal at that. He knows she’s to his left on guns and women and LBGT and a range of issues. He knows the range of progressive achievements she had and helped secure, and he knows that she has developed a full range of progressive solutions in many more areas that he has and to a much more detailed and targeted degree than he himself has. He likely knows she’d be more effective than him in office, and I do not doubt that he knows she is a good person. But he pretends otherwise and smears her and all his congressional colleagues as shills.”
    View at

    • JELC  On April 19, 2016 at 11:09 am

      While that article espouses a harsher view than I agree with, I’ve been drifting in this direction myself. At the beginning of the campaign he seemed civil and thoughtful, he engaged with important issues, and he seemed principled to me. But I have been feeling more lately like his inclinations to ideological purity are too strong and he’s damaging the democratic party’s ability to win if he doesn’t get the nomination. Especially in his suggestion that Clinton is in the pocket of wall street. I think that he has taken that way too far, and that his laser focus on a small set of issues with her borders on deceptive.

      I take greater issue with it because, as this article points out, he will need to fund-raise massively for down ticket democrats if he’s running in the general, and he won’t be able to do that without doing the things Clinton is doing now. And she is doing them NOW. She has demonstrated deep commitment to the democratic party and achieving progressive things, even if I don’t think she goes far enough on many issues and I’m concerned about her hawkishness. And Saunders simply hasn’t. He’s demonstrated commitment to wanting progressive things, but not achieving them. To show me commitment to achieving them he would have had to start sooner on working to strengthen the Democratic party (down-ticket support), and he would have had to show me that he was concerned about the Democrats’ success whether or not he got the nomination by shoring up Clinton rather than attacking her. Run on the issues, don’t say Clinton is untrustworthy or unqualified.

      Also, the daily news interview was striking for me. He had more intelligent things to say than it looks like from the excerpts people provide, but there were some areas that are core to his platform like breaking up the banks where his answers were woefully inadequate. If you’re going to make so much of your campaign about breaking up the banks, you better have a damn good understanding of the tools you have to do it, the consequences it will have, and what alternative you want to put in place.

      • JELC  On April 19, 2016 at 11:12 am

        I typed Sanders as Saunders here. Weird.

      • jh  On April 19, 2016 at 4:10 pm

        This is the problem with Bernie when I started to see him as a potential democrat candidate. I’ve seen him on the Bill Maher show and he has a tendency to speak over other people. It’s gotten to the point where his arms are waving in front of the person next to him. Some people say “that’s passion” but I see a PR disaster.

        Politics shouldn’t be ruled by passion. That’s for teenage girls who are team wolf or team vampire from that stupid vampire movie with Kristin Stewart. Politics needs to be assessed with a colder, far more pragmatic temperament.

        And even though I feel that Hillary is a tougher candidate because she’s had to deal with the republicans demonizing her for decades, it’s not like certain thoughts haven’t crossed my mind. For example – the destruction of her good character by malicious republicans has tainted her even when compared to the vileness of a Trump or Cruz or Kasich. Another thought that runs through my mind is that if Hillary won, it would be a powerful rallying cry for republicans to sweep the mid-year elections. That would lead to a greatly diminished presidency that could possibly be only one term. Obama has had to deal with this for over 7 years and it has led to a great deal of destruction of our public rule of law and proper governmental functioning.

        But at the end of the day, I don’t want a republican in power who can appoint a conservative SCOTUS. I want a SCOTUS candidate who is far more liberal… just like the liberal SCOTUS judge that Scalia replaced.

        This is a war. And in this war, there are many battles. This is just one battle.

    • weeklysift  On April 22, 2016 at 8:41 am

      I think Sanders brings forward a number of issues that deserve real attention, so I’m glad he decided to run. The pragmatists in the Party need to be kept honest by idealists who keep asking: What long-term goals are we striving for, and how are today’s half-measures and compromises going to move us down that road?

  • Abby  On April 19, 2016 at 11:00 am

    The Republican buzzsaw also includes a sh!t cannon. One of the reasons that Clinton won in ’92 was because his campaign formed the Clinton/Gore Rapid Response Team. The mission was that for any piece of Repub. dirt thrown at Clinton or Gore, the Rapid Response Team would issue a correcting response within 24 hours, and the response would go to fax machines in every newsroom across the country. So they beat the Repub. tactic of getting a lie out and letting it live in newsrooms until it became a story of its own, then inventing a new lie, and owning news cycles with their nonsense. Gore and Kerry failed to follow this example when they ran, which led to endless problems, for instance, the Swiftboating of John Kerry. WHOEVER the democratic candidate is, they will be well served to form a Rapid Repsonse Team, to prevent Repub. lies from owning successive news cycles. It really doesn’t matter who the Democratic candidate is. Once they become the party nominee, the Repub. sh!t cannon will be aimed at them. It also doesn’t matter whether they have dirt in their past to be dug up or not. The opposition is perfectly happy to make stuff up, and if Dems don’t respond to it, then it becomes a Story. You have been warned.

    • JJ  On April 19, 2016 at 1:50 pm


    • jh  On April 19, 2016 at 4:12 pm

      Yup. and in addition, I have no problem with PACs slinging dirt at the other candidates. If the republicans can swift boat a Kerry, they should have no problem if that weapon is turned right back at them. Too much of the democrat position is based on reacting to lies. It’s time to go on the offensive and start splitting their attacks.

      • JJ  On April 20, 2016 at 1:16 pm

        I agree that the left should go on the offensive. I don’t think we need to be making stuff up, though. I think there are plenty of true things that would cause problems for the right if they were widely known.

      • weeklysift  On April 22, 2016 at 8:32 am

        I agree with JJ: There’s plenty of real shit lying around, so there’s no need to make any up. When somebody yelled “Give ’em hell, Harry” at President Truman in the 1948 campaign, he is supposed to have answered: “I never give anybody hell. I just tell the truth about them, and they think it’s hell.”

  • WX Wall  On April 22, 2016 at 11:06 am

    I like your article, but I’d go even further than you: I don’t think we can really draw *any* conclusions from these previous elections (or very, very few). When you start diving into their histories, what seem like broad truths always get shot down the more details you learn of each race.

    For example, Dukakis, like you said, was considered a moderate by most Dems, a solid, sober technocrat responsible for the “Massachusetts Miracle”. Furthermore, he was ahead in the polls through the entire general election until the Willie Horton ads appeared. Even then, many analysts feel he could have won if he just addressed them (for example, pointing out federal prisoners who were furloughed under Reagan), but he never did, and allowed that theme to fester. So did he lose because he was a liberal, or because the superpredator “Black men will be freed from jail and come rape and kill your daughter” message resonated back then, or because Dukakis refused to sling mud? I don’t know. It’s a bunch of what-if’s. Heck, maybe it was the pink hat.

    Similarly, Clinton was an unknown Gov from a small state, and the only reason he won the primaries was because all the better-known Dem candidates were afraid to run in the wake of Bush’s >90% approval ratings after the first Gulf War. Luckily for Clinton, as the economy tanked, so did Bush’s numbers, and so he was able to win the general. Could a liberal have won that election if he tried? Who knows? Plus the whole Perot candidacy makes it very hard to generalize from that race.

    Then you could look at 2000, where a sober, moderate, Southern Dem VP coming off of 8 years of peace and prosperity on the back of one of the most popular Presidents in history (nevermind the impeachment :-), couldn’t beat an unknown nepotistic charge from Texas (at least in the electoral college). Was Gore just a poor campaigner? Was Nader a spoiler?

    In 2004, if Dean didn’t have that Dean Scream and won the primary, would he have beaten Bush (Karl Rove later said he was the candidate the Repubs were the most worried about)?

    Honestly, I don’t know. It’s scary to think that the election of the Leader Of The Free World ™ could hinge on frighteningly trivial things or a complex interplay of so many factors that the outcome is essentially unpredictable. And yet, that’s my assertion.

    So having said that, why do I support Bernie? Despite everything I said above, I have to agree that Hillary has a better chance in the general. The Repubs haven’t even begun their mudslinging against Bernie, so I discount polls that he does better against them than Hillary. And yet, the Republican party is so weak right now, that I feel, now is the time to take that chance on a guy who expresses our ideals. I fully understand people who say we can’t risk a Cruz or Trump Presidency. And indeed, I fully understand that this is a luxury for me compared to say an African American who might have to worry (more than he does now) about being shot on the street by a cop or armed ‘patriots’. And yet… If we can’t run on our ideals in a general election where the other party is essentially imploding, and the two leading candidates are despised by most *Republicans*, when *can* we take that risk? Although I think Bernie’s chances are worse than Hillary’s in the general, I think they’re still good enough (>50%) that IMHO, it’s worth the risk. If Hillary has a 90% chance of winning the general and Bernie has a 60% chance, I’d take the gamble on Bernie.

    This changes, BTW, if the Republicans somehow nominate Kasich. Although he’s far from the sober, moderate Republican that people think he is, he’s a far stronger candidate than Trump/Cruz, so in that case, I’d probably prefer Hillary be our candidate.

    So in essence, my choice for Leader Of The Free World hinges on the outcome of a crazy convention in Cleveland and the political backroom machinations of an orange-haired billionaire and the leader of the Christian Taliban (I’m still hoping they’ll allow open-carry within their convention). See what I mean by frighteningly trivial and/or frighteningly complex?

  • WX Wall  On April 22, 2016 at 11:28 am

    Oh yes, one more thing: I agree that Bernie’s debate performances are worrisome. He doesn’t really have charisma and when attacked, tends to retreat to just repeating his slogans except louder and with more finger wagging.

    But I don’t know how this will affect him in the general. Bush II was a famously bad debater against both Gore and Kerry, and it didn’t matter. Marco Rubio, I thought, was the best debater in the first several debates until Chris Christie found Marcobot’s reboot button and kept pressing it. Aside from Reagan’s “There you go again” moment against Jimmy Carter in the 1980 debate, you’d have to go way back to Kennedy/Nixon to find a debate that maybe affected the election.

    Heck, I’d argue that in modern times the only debates that ever mattered were the *VP* debates. Quayle came off really badly against Lloyd Bentson in 1988 (“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy”), and Admiral Stockton (Perot’s VP candidate) was shockingly bad in 1992 (remember he famously forgot to turn his hearing aid on?). And in 2008, the only debate people cared to watch was between Biden and Sarah Palin.

    The more I learn about elections, the more I come to the conclusion that they are inevitably a race between two men (So far 🙂 ) with their unique strengths / faults / quirks acting against a unique national backdrop of electoral concerns in which the outcome is more a result of chaos theory, on which only in hindsight, we draw the lessons we want to draw from it. (And to a political junkie like me or you, they could probably function as a Rorschach Test. Quick: tell me the 5 conclusions you draw when I say the words Jesse Jackson, 1988, Dem primary, Keep Hope Alive).


  • By The Yearly Sift 2016 | The Weekly Sift on December 26, 2016 at 8:56 am

    […] taken him seriously, a position I laid out in “Smearing Bernie: a preview” and “Do we still have to worry about the McGovern problem?“) My decision process — ultimately resulting in a Bernie vote — played out in […]

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