Democrats' debates risk 'McGoverning' their own nominee

Democrats' debates risk 'McGoverning' their own nominee

It’s 1972: I’m working for Dan Walker, who is running for governor of Illinois and just won the state’s Democratic primary in a staggering upset. We field organizers are talking to Vic, Dan’s jovial campaign manager. We’re excited about what we can do before November; lots of new people want to help.

Suddenly Vic turns serious. He says something like, “Just stay clear of those McGovern people.”

What? I love George McGovern! But I know what Vic means: To get the party’s presidential nomination, McGovern has run too far left. Reporters call Democrats the “Triple A party” — abortion, amnesty and acid. Maybe Vic is right. McGovern could cost us. I feel terrible. But I obey orders.

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I remembered that conversation during this week’s run-up to Wednesday’s first Democratic presidential debate. Dominating the news: the controversy over Joe Biden’s remarks about the need to work with opponents, as he once had done with two virulently racist segregationist Southern senators, James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.).

The storm of criticism from Biden’s rivals was instantaneous and incendiary. This was not the time to “celebrate segregationists,” Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSanders can gain ground by zeroing in on corruption Biden praises Buttigieg for criticizing GOP attacks: 'That's a good man' Warren enters crucial debate with big momentum MORE (D-Mass.) said. Said Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisRepublicans wrestle with impeachment strategy Klobuchar takes shots at health and education plans supported by Sanders and Warren Kamala Harris to Trump Jr.: 'You wouldn't know a joke if one raised you' MORE (D-Calif.): “To coddle the reputation of segregationists … it’s wrong.” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) demanded an apology. Others lamented Biden’s off-the-cuff gaffes. 

There’s nothing wrong with criticizing Biden. He sits atop the polls. How else do candidates dislodge a frontrunner than by pointing out shortcomings? 

But what if Wednesday night’s first debate reveals something more? What if we hear a drumbeat of harsh criticism signaling a party so far left that it “McGoverns” whomever becomes its nominee?

It’s possible. The trailing candidates clearly are appealing to what pollsters call “engaged” Democrats, those passionate liberals making up around 36 percent of primary voters. Anyone who watched House Democratic Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) fish-fry event last week saw one candidate after another jump on stage to promise what sound like giveaways: “Medicare for all.” Forgiving student debt. Giving Americans $12,000 a year tax-free.

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But “engaged” voters make up only about two out of 10 Democrats. Such promises make less-engaged Democrats uncomfortable. In 2020 the roughly 80 percent of voters who skipped primaries will be even more dubious.

Still, let’s say Biden was celebrating segregationists; maybe he deserves a rebuke. To figure that out, as I teach in my political speech classes, we should examine exactly what he said. 

Here is the full text, compliments of Mother Jones. Biden had opened with a comment about the two senators. Reporters quoted the comment — then what came next:

“He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’” Biden said of Eastland, before describing Talmadge as “one of the meanest guys I ever knew.” 

“At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”

Huh? Even by the standards of politics, Biden’s critics are wrong. “Celebrating” segregationists? Biden describes Talmadge as “one of the meanest guys I ever knew.” As for the suggestion that he “coddle(d) the reputation of segregationists,” where does Biden even imply that? Instead, he says: “We didn’t agree on much of anything.”

Biden’s “comment” came in for harsh rejoinders, too. “That segregationist never called you ‘boy’ because you are white,” wrote one critic. Does anyone believe Biden didn’t know that? 

To me, Biden’s comment drips with contempt. He’s saying, in effect, “Yeah, Eastland and Talmadge were so awful they used a different word but patronized me, too.”

Meanwhile, the text seems smart, most likely not off-the-cuff, reasonable — and, after three years of Donald Trump, what anyone in politics should want. Warren, Harris and Booker have made a point of telling reporters they read the entire 448-page Mueller report. But did they read Biden's two-paragraph quote before criticizing him? 

If they had, why pretend Biden trafficked with segregationists, or thought calling a black American man “boy” was anything other than despicable? If not, why comment with such Trump-like distortion? If viewers hear that same kind of thing on Wednesday or Thursday nights, it could signal a party leaving its Democratic nominee, yes, “McGoverned.”

By the end of that long-ago Illinois campaign, I’d learned my lesson. We kept our distance from the McGovernites. Nothing McGovern could do or say worked. Nixon won Illinois by 20 points. Walker squeaked in with 50.7 percent of the vote. Vic had been right— and his advice was right in another state 800 miles to the east, too. There, Nixon also won by about 20 points. And there was a young guy there, in Delaware, running for Senate against a weak Republican. He should have won handily — but Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage Schiff: Whistleblower testimony might not be necessary Trump warns Democrats will lose House seats over impeachment MORE won with 50.48 percent of the vote.

It is unlikely Biden has forgotten that squeaker. Neither should those running against him.

One reporter wrote last week that Biden’s remarks provided “ammunition” for his challengers. That’s true. But in 495 days, the Democratic nominee won’t be running within the Democratic Party. After four years of President TrumpDonald John TrumpWHCA calls on Trump to denounce video depicting him shooting media outlets Video of fake Trump shooting members of media shown at his Miami resort: report Trump hits Fox News's Chris Wallace over Ukraine coverage MORE, undecided voters might relish a candidate willing to work across the aisle — unless his rivals continue using ammunition like what they shot at Biden last week.

Will they do that on Thursday night, when Biden is on the debate stage with them? The ghost of George McGovern would advise otherwise.

Bob Lehrman, former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, teaches speech writing at American University. He and fellow teacher Eric Schnure have co-authored the soon-to-be-released second edition of “The Political Speechwriter’s Companion” (SAGE, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @RobertLehrman1.