Betty’s post points out one of the ironies of George McGovern’s life–a war hero whose patriotism was attacked for opposing the Vietnam War. Another of the great ironies is that someone as skilled in politics as McGovern lost as badly as he did in 1972. Before McGovern, there was no Democratic Party in South Dakota. When he became Executive Secretary of the party in the early 50s, no Democrat had been elected to Congress or the Senate since well before World War II. McGovern traveled the state for years building up a grassroots organization, maintaining a card index of the Democrats he met and encouraged in every little town in the state. The organization he built paved the way for years of Democratic success in a state that, by the numbers, should never have elected a Democrat to federal office.
People looking at McGovern for a legacy see his pacifism, and his work in the fight against hunger around the world. But I wish people would look at the way he won elections. The formula is fairly simple to lay out, but difficult to execute. It begins with keeping track of every individual who ever marked “Democrat” when they registered to vote, and by energizing local party organizations by paying attention to the hard workers there, and giving them encouragement that elections won’t, since there are a lot of places in states like South Dakota where no Democrat will ever get elected to the state legislature.
The McGovern formula for policy is that you have to cut loose what local residents just won’t accept–for example, even the liberal George McGovern never advocated gun control as an elected official. You become the number one advocate for policies that benefit your region (in his case, farm subsidies). You find new places where the interests of your region and the policies you advocate can work together: McGovern’s lifelong devotion to feeding the world is a great example of that. It opened a new market for South Dakota corn and wheat, while advancing the cause of peace, and avoiding the isolationism that was the default position of a lot of politicians of the era prior to McGovern’s. And then you vote as a liberal on everything that isn’t a dealbreaker.
The difference between McGovern and the Blue Dogs is that Blue Dogs spend their time telling you how much they aren’t liberals, while the McGovern pitch is “I’m a liberal but I’m also a better advocate for the things we both value.” Perhaps the word “liberal” is so devauled that this approach no longer works, but I don’t see a lot of Blue Dogs left, so maybe some kind of modified McGovern approach is worth a shot.
Also, too: the Sioux Falls Argus Leader has a great McGovern package this morning.