By James A. Kidney
The “top stories” section of The New York Times online this morning featured news articles about “Bill Clinton Unleashes a Stinging Attack on Sanders” and another about Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem criticizing women who support Bernie Sanders rather than Hillary Clinton. All three essentially called female Sanders supporters traitors to their gender – “Aunt Thomasina” rather than “Uncle Tom.”
Bill Clinton also blamed Sanders for internet trolls who, according to Clinton, used vicious, sexist language in online comments directed to female columnists and others, male and female, supporting his wife. This raises a question: Has Bill Clinton ever looked at internet comments before? Does he understand that internet trolls are mostly folks holed up in their basements with no friends? They are not manning the computers at presidential candidate headquarters. Those folks instead are sending out bothersome emails about the virtues and pressing financial needs of their own candidates. Well, Bill has his own server as well as servants, so maybe he doesn’t see email spam.
The cause of these attacks is that young voting-age females in New Hampshire are polling overwhelmingly for the old guy and Clinton is getting desperate in the state. Young and even middle-aged women don’t seem attracted to the Hillary Clinton drumbeat that, no matter how cozy she is with Wall Street and the Robert Rubin crowd, she is a proud standard-bearer for every self-identified racial and sexual group on the planet demanding its rights — except those who are male, straight and white.
Here is an excerpt from her opening statement at the debate with Sanders last week in which she barely recognized the importance of economic issues and jumped to race and gender, which Sanders has not made a focus of his campaign:
“Yes, of course, the economy has not been working for most Americans. Yes, of course, we have special interests that are unfortunately doing too much to rig the game.But there’s also the continuing challenges of racism, of sexism, of discrimination against the LGBT community, of the way that we treat people as opposed to how we want to be treated.”
[Let’s make it clear that either Sanders or Clinton would be head-and-shoulders better than any Republican running for president. This was proved conclusively at last week’s Democratic candidate debate – the first in which it was just Sanders and Clinton, head-to-head. It was mostly a mature, thoughtful discussion of issues, with much agreement. Backers of either candidate would be stubbornly wrong-headed to stay home on election day if the other person was nominated instead.]
A key issue in the Democratic race is electability. It always is for both parties. That is where the attacks on Sanders by Clinton supporters are most pronounced and effective. The second, and as effective, attack on Sanders is for lack of foreign policy chops. There is merit to the second claim, which should have an impact on the first. But setting foreign policy aside, is Sanders really the “new McGovern” as many Clinton supporters are claiming? Is the self-described “Social Democrat” too radical for the American voter?
A Brief Recollection of the McGovern Campaign
For gentle readers of a younger age, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern was the Democratic Party nominee for president in 1972, running against Richard Nixon (surely you have heard of him?), who was seeking a second term (and permitting or covering up, if not ordering, the bugging of Democratic headquarters and other dirty tricks). As a review of the election by Wikipedia reminds us, Edmund Muskie, who was a Maine senator and later Secretary of State in the Lyndon Johnson administration, was the Democratic candidate favored by the party Establishment of those days.
McGovern ran a campaign based mostly on ending the Vietnam War immediately, granting amnesty to draft dodgers who had fled to Canada and elsewhere, cutting the defense budget by nearly 40 percent, and providing a small minimum income guarantee ($1,000) to everyone.
McGovern was clobbered in the general election. Nixon got 60.7 percent of the vote to McGovern’s 37.5 percent. It was the second biggest landslide in American history. Nixon won the electoral college 520 to 17 and was the first Republican to win all of the Deep South states — ever.
The common narrative, mostly correct, is that McGovern was perceived by the public and the Democratic Establishment as too radical for his time.
But McGovern helped his opponent in many ways and was thoroughly undermined by the party big-wigs. The nominating convention was hostile, with McGovern supporters seeking to replace or diminish delegate representation among unions and southern whites. Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter helped to spearhead a “Stop McGovern” campaign at the convention, according to Wikipedia. Due to the battles on the convention floor, McGovern did not give his acceptance speech until 2 a.m.
McGovern even had problems recruiting a running mate. Ted Kennedy and other Establishment figures who might have attracted support to the ticket turned down the job. McGovern finally selected the obscure Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton. Soon after the convention, it was learned that Eagleton had been given electroshock treatment for clinical depression 10 years earlier and continued to receive doses of Thorazine obtained under his wife’s name. Eagleton had to be dumped in mid-campaign and was replaced by Kennedy brother-in-law and Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver. It was hard to see how Shriver could help the ticket. He didn’t.
For his part, Nixon employed a “Southern Strategy” of dog whistles (and more obvious signals) to white voters suggesting McGovern would favor minorities, especially African-Americans, while Nixon would look out for the working white man. It had worked against Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and would work again. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously neutered McGovern’s anti-war message by claiming that “peace is at hand.” (The war went on for three more years, but certain segments of the Establishment in both parties worship Kissinger to this day.)
America in 1972
The economy was not a major issue in the 1972 presidential campaign. Although foreign competition had reared its head, principally from Japan, there was no trade with China and most other Asian nations were not yet seen as sources of cheap manufacturing by U.S. companies. The biggest problem with Wall Street was that stock prices were pretty moribund despite a strong economy.
As now, race was a major issue. As now, Democrats were identified with helping minorities and Republicans took maximum advantage of that perception with whites.
No one liked the Vietnam War, but “withdrawal with honor” was preferred by most, especially veterans of World War II and Korea (of whom there were many), to naked retreat. As now, the Republicans were viewed as more inclined to exercise international authority through arms.
To recap: Americans were pretty happy except for an unpopular war fought far away. Yes, minorities were pushing for a better life, but most Americans could point to the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s providing for legal equal rights in employment, housing and services and conclude that the worst of Jim Crow was over. Public school integration in the North was, however, a step too far for many whites. At least civil rights protesters were not being hosed and jailed in Alabama. That’s enough for now, was the thinking.
Americans still had good manufacturing jobs. General Motors was dominant in car sales. Home sales were booming, along with small boat sales and other middle class luxuries. There was no draft, so young guys and their girlfriends were leaving the streets and returning to career-building. War was going to end one way or another and there had no been a scary face-off with the Soviet Union since 1962. Nobody wanted to return to the chaos of the 1960s, which McGovern seemed to reflect in his supporters.
In a word, if you were white and straight, things weren’t so bad. Even if you were black, there was a strong case to be made that things were better than they were 10 years earlier. Jackie Robinson was a Republican! It was certainly a reasonable contention that America was the best place in the world to live.
The Differences Now
As the above brief, and surely over-generalized, narrative suggests, there are highly significant differences between America in 1972 and 2016. These changes strengthen the case for a political campaign based on major, if not radical, economic change, a subject McGovern barely touched. It is a reason why old upper middle class Clinton supporters are angry at younger women supporting Sanders. Times have changed, as the young women recognize and their mothers do not.
In essence, the change from 1972 is reflected in this maxim: Gender differences are of little consequence in the soup line. Or, to quote a politician who still hangs around, “It’s the economy stupid.”
Young people, including many of the children and grandchildren of Clinton supporters who have tended to the feminist rope line for 50 years, are finding that their major obstacle to duplicating, let alone improving upon, the life of their parents is not gender, but the economy. There is little gender or even race discrimination hiring baristas or retail clerks.
Although this writer has been a feminist all of his life, and was blessed by an early model of the best of feminism in his mother, it is no surrender to misogyny to recognize that today there are too few good jobs for men or women. Like it or not, concerns about gender – be it homosexuality, transsexualism, or even discrimination against females – is going to take a back seat in difficult economic times.
This is not to say that these issues should not be discussed in the public arena and be the subject of legislation. But on the Democratic Party side, where there is little practical controversy about gender equality, a candidate for national office seeking to differentiate herself on appeal to gender is missing the larger picture. One can understand the feminist frustration with a country which elected a black man twice but is not attracted to arguments about gender equality in a weak economy controlled by oligarchs. “If not now, when?” may resonate among the dedicated. But it is, at best, an important side issue to most, especially since the other, male, candidate is hardly going to be hostile to women. Meanwhile, any Republican candidate is sure to be warring on females. Not only is gender politics secondary in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, it is irrelevant, except as, in Clinton’s case, symbol.
Is Sanders the New McGovern?
Maybe Sanders will be the New McGovern. But so might Clinton. The Clinton negatives are high. Her honesty, rightly or wrongly, is in doubt among many. She is most favored for the nomination in states with large minority populations – the same states in many cases for which Democrats have no chance in the Electoral College. The Deep South Nixon country has been joined by red states elsewhere. They, too, will go with the more moderate Clinton in the primaries and with Republicans in the general election. Clinton also has much less credibility than Sanders on the issue that counts for most Americans in both parties: An economy in which the good jobs have disappeared and an outsized amount of the money that is realized goes to the rich. (Republican rank-and-file have just misidentified the cause of their misery, blaming that black president and the federal government instead. It’s been that way for nearly 50 years. They never learn. It is one thing unchanged since 1972.)
When votes are cast in traditionally blue states and the swing states in March and later, we will learn the strengths of both candidates among voters and whether Sanders’ more radical economic campaign trumps Clinton’s experience and moderation. But gender politics seems unlikely to be a deciding factor.
Bill Clinton complained yesterday that everyone who supports his wife is attacked as not progressive enough, or not concerned enough, or is otherwise wanting. Hillary acts as if it is unfair for Sanders to even raise the fact she has received millions from big corporations, not just Wall Street, while she says she agrees that there is too much money in politics. The couple sounds a lot like Mitt and Ann Romney in 2012 – whining among the privileged class about how the little people are taking unfair shots. How can those little people understand how much it pains us not to be loved? What do they know about the travails of being rich?
The Clintons have complained about being victims all of their lives in national politics. Hey, it’s not (necessarily) personal. It’s politics. And, it’s the economy, stupid. Time for a new tape reel, Secretary Clinton. Gender politics won’t cut it. Not this year.