Send Clear Message or Relive McGovern Moment

Originally posted: August 18, 2006

ken bode crop.jpgNORTH CANAAN, Conn.– The voters I found in this small, western Connecticut town looked deceptively ordinary. Election official Danille Gaherty reported a heavy turnout, and Anna McGuire, the Republican registrar, allowed that there had been significant re-registration among her co-religionists to vote in the Democratic primary. Neither offered an opinion on whether these were Bush supporters eager to back Joe Lieberman or anti-war Republicans voting for the Ned Lamont’s call to bring home the troops. When the results were in, the answer was obvious: Lamont thumped Lieberman 2-to-1 in North Canaan.

I insist these folks all looked like ordinary citizens. Neither at the polling place nor at the two local pubs, Stepping Stone and Katie O’Casey’s, did I find among the Lamont voters anything like the cunning, insidious crowd others discovered in their analyses of the election.

These voters, I learned from columnist Charles Krauthammer, were part of the “blame America first Democrats,” naïve accommodationists who are now planning to purge the party of its hawkish elements.” Matthew Continetti of The Weekly Standard told of finding Lamont activists who were “suspicious of orthodox or evangelical religion, harboring a curious fetishization of science and technology, with a habit of self-affirmation.” I don’t know where Continetti finds his voters, but he sounds a bit bizarro to me.

Reading Kathleen Parker’s column, I learned that I’d been gulled by these clever North Canaanites. Parker reports that Lamont voters are part of the “Stalinist” wing of the Democratic Party. She insists that Lieberman’s defeat is the opening round of an upcoming purge. Stalin purged from the top down, brutally. Connecticut citizens freely rendered their verdict on Lieberman from the bottom up. Any difference, Ms. Parker?vote clip art.jpg

Following the talking points from Karl Rove, the right-wing commentary is filled with charges that the McGovernite wing of the Democratic Party is now ascendant. In turn, the party’s leadership promises that, this time, they are not going to allow themselves to be “Swift boated” on national security, as John Kerry was in 2004.

Actually the Swift boating began long before the term entered the political lexicon. In 1968, remember, Richard Nixon ran on a secret plan to end the Vietnam War, and America bought the promise. Four years later, there was no end in sight. George McGovern’s anti-war message, with a promise to end the bombing on Inauguration Day, won him the nomination. He also stood for a Congress that reasserts its power to declare war and a war profits tax, good ideas even today. He didn’t try to purge anyone. Indeed the McGovern campaign was completely inclusive, reaching out to the Henry Jackson-George Meany wing of the party, which had labeled him the candidate of abortion, acid and amnesty.

McGovern was a bona fide war hero, the pilot of 35 missions over Europe in the Dakota Queen, a B-24 Liberator bomber. With the acquiescence of right wingers in the Democratic Party, Nixon portrayed McGovern as weak on defense, a cringing apostle of appeasement. Only days before the election, Henry Kissinger falsely pronounced that peace was at hand, and the resulting McGovern landslide loss contributed to his name being invoked as a symbol of failure. Remember, however, that it was the Nixon team that went to jail and their leader who descended into ignominy and exile in San Clemente.

Contrary to the charges made by Krauthammer, Continetti and Parker, there is no purge ahead among Democrats. However, there is the problem that Karl Rove and his pro-war followers will say, as Nixon did in 1972 and Bush did in 2004, that “to cut and run will only dishonor the sacrifice of those who already have given their lives.” For the sake of its 2006 candidates, the Democratic leadership must develop a convincing message that Bush policies have diminished America’s safety, fueled Islamic radicalism and failed to shore up security at home. That should be possible because it certainly is true, and the campaign slogan now suggested for the 2006 campaign sounds like a good one: “Feel safer? Vote for a Change.”

A clear message is especially important in this election because otherwise, like McGovern in ’72 and Kerry in ’04, the Democratic Party’s candidates are going to be Swift boated by Rove, the conservative commentariat and by its own right wing.

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