1972 campaign reveals how much modern Democrats have changed

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For many Republicans and more than a few centrist Democrats, the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern stands as a monument to left wing radicalism. Newt Gingrich accused his supporters of wanting to “trash America.” Politico wrote that it was a “hard left” environment that led to his candidacy. Even Senator Tom Eagleton, who briefly shared the ticket with McGovern before dropping out amidst revelations he had undergone electroshock therapy, privately told journalist Robert Novak that McGovern was a candidate of “abortion, amnesty, and the legalization of pot.” This was alliteratively rephrased as “acid, amnesty, and abortion.”

A look at the actual platform of the senator from South Dakota, however, tells a much different story. Today, a person running as McGovern did would be well to the right of everyone considered to have a serious chance at the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. For better or worse, many of the ideas McGovern that proposed in his campaign have become part of mainstream American public policy. Indeed, a good number of them, including inflation adjustment for Social Security, increased federal aid to high poverty schools, and a drug benefit under Medicare, were eventually first implemented by Republican presidents.

{mosads}On issues where the parties differ today, the platform would never pass muster with Democrats. While the campaign had language supporting family planning, it was entirely silent on abortion. This was not surprising since Eagleton and his replacement on the ticket, Sargent Shriver, were outspokenly against it. McGovern also wanted decisions over abortion left to the states. Although the gay rights movement was in full swing by 1972, the platform contained nary a mention of LGBT individuals. Ditto for marijuana, which McGovern wanted to decriminalize but not legalize.

Likewise, while the platform promised a national health system, the plan it described was focused on catastrophic coverage rather than the “free everything” care pushed by Democratic candidates Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. Its humbler promise was simply to make care “affordable” and accordingly, it implied a significant role for individual cost sharing. The platform also explicitly rejected a single payer system by promising protection for the “rule of free choice for both provider and consumer.”

On energy, the platform could be considered right wing by standards today. Energy policy should focus, the campaign said, on “long term abundant supplies of clean energy at reasonable cost.” Climate change, which was already being discussed in the scientific literature although not yet a concern for most environmentalists, went unmentioned. Meanwhile, the platform promised to “expand the efficiency of coal in meeting our energy needs,” while stepping up efforts to make use of nuclear power.

Although the plan was more left leaning on labor issues and education issues, it would not have satisfied the most ardent proponents of the Green New Deal. While there was a call for a vastly higher minimum wage almost exactly equivalent to $15 adjusted for inflation and a promise to provide a guaranteed government job for everyone, it made no mention of the tuition free college for the upper middle class championed by the likes of liberal New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The platform even contained a libertarian swipe at onerous professional licensing rules.

Even on taxes, McGovern was fairly moderate by standards today. His first major proposal on economic policy was a simplification of brackets and deductions similar to those that were carried out under Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. While the platform did endorse progressive taxes and declared that more income should be subject to Social Security taxes, which is a move that would have impacted higher earners, there was no explicit targeting of the rich, much less a call for the type of direct wealth tax on savings over a certain amount that Elizabeth Warren has proposed.

Nearly all current Republican office holders take positions well to the right of the liberal Richard Nixon wing of the party that McGovern lost to, while Democratic lawmakers have changed less. But the manifesto of a radical leftist from the early 1970s shows that modern Democratic candidates have moved at least as far to the left as Republicans have to the right.

Eli Lehrer is the president of the R Street Institute.

Tags Americans Congress Cory Booker Democrats Donald Trump Election Elizabeth Warren Government President Republicans United States

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