A Look Back At Seven Centrist Defeats
by Paul Rockwell
In 2016, Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton, not because she was a visionary, certainly not because her agenda generated enthusiasm among young voters, but because Democrats -- influenced by media -- simply assumed that centrists are automatically more electable than progressives.
That assumption has no basis in reality. Even worse, the centrist viewpoint could well lead to another Clinton-like fiasco.
Many voters may be too young (or too old) to remember the sorry record of centrist failures, from Stevenson’s defeat in 1952 to Clinton’s downfall in 2016. Prior to all the nominations, pundits and press insisted that Democrats needed to move the party to the right in order to defeat their Republican adversary. They blamed the misfortunes of the Democratic Party on excessive liberalism.
However, when we actually look at the historical record, a different story emerges, a story that dispels the myth of centrist electability.
Truman’s Korean war policies made him unpopular, and he declined to run for a second term. So Adlai Stevenson ran a pitiful, overly intellectual campaign against Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower (“Ike”). Stevenson was a liberal from Illinois who, in order to win the presidency, became a centrist in his campaign. Centrists are afraid to confront the war machine that sucks wealth and treasure out of our domestic economy. Stevenson never had the guts to call for an end to the Korean War. My father, a Democrat, voted for Eisenhower in 1952, after Ike wiped out Stevenson with a single announcement: “I will go to Korea. The time has come to bring our boys home.” Stevenson’s wimpy centrism lost big in 1952.
Hubert Humphrey Waffles
In 1968 Hubert Humphrey, once proud of his liberal record, campaigned as Lyndon Johnson’s proxy. His centrist campaign, his refusal to make a clean break from LBJ’s war against Vietnam, made Nixon’s victory possible. Republicans know how to goad liberal Democrats into war, only to leave them with blood on their hands, the consequences of their own right-wing follies.
Notwithstanding his record as a hawk and witch-hunter, Nixon became -- by default of the Democrats -- the “peace” candidate. Nixon offered a “secret plan” for ending the war. The Democrats, so far gone in their pro-interventionist policy, were outflanked again.
Richard Nixon’s defeat of George McGovern, the anti-war candidate in 1972, is often cited as an excuse for choosing centrists over progressives (regardless of the litany of centrist presidential defeats).
Nixon was a master of timing. He claimed to be winding down the war. In February he made his historic trip to communist China and met with Mao Zedong. After George Wallace was shot, Wallace supporters went over to Tricky Dick.
In sum, as Joshua Mound wrote in the New Republic (Feb.29, 2016): “Any Democratic nominee was doomed in 1972."
Antipathy to progressive politics dominated the conservative money-drenched leadership of the Democratic Party throughout the 1980s. The thrilling grassroots campaign of Reverend Jesse Jackson caused panic in the halls of Congress. Democratic insiders nominated Walter Mondale, as right-wing as Joe Biden today. When nominated, Mondale rejected all of Jesse Jackson’s platforms at the convention. Mondale went on to engineer the ugly system of “superdelegates,” designed to prevent progressive candidates from ever winning a nomination. The Congressional Quarterly called Mondale’s platform “economically the most conservative platform in the last fifty years.” It promoted cuts in social spending and an increased military budget. Mondale expected he could win the election by appeasing militarists and conservatives. He ended up with 40% of the popular vote.
Right-Wing Posturing of Michael Dukakis
The 1988 Democratic primary was far more exciting than most. Seven million Americans supported Jackson’s second bid for the nomination. Not one United States senator or governor endorsed the African-American candidate. But the Mayor of Burlington, Vermont -- Bernie Sanders --- not only endorsed Jackson, he won over the majority of Vermont delegates for the Rainbow Coalition.
Michael Dukakis ran a typical centrist primary: he leaned to the left to win the nomination, only to turn to the right to campaign in the general election.
Awed by pundits and self-proclaimed pragmatists, Dukakis tried to look conservative. He organized a dramatic, histrionic photo opp. He invited national TV to capture him riding around in a tank. You could barely see his tiny head in the cockpit. The media loved it. And while Dukakis won the “asshole of the year award” from a group of anarchists, our mastermind of centrist tactics lost the election.
Kerry Flip Flops on Iraq
Of all the centrist defeats, none is sadder than John Kerry’s campaign against “W” Bush, the man who initiated the 2003 invasion of Iraq and facilitated the rise of ISIS.
Kerry was actually beating the drums for intervention in the Mideast even before Bush launched the invasion. On July 2, 2002, Kerry gave a speech to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council: “I agree completely with this administration’s goal of a regime change in Iraq.”
During the 2004 primary, I remember sitting on the couch watching TV with my wife. A reporter pressed John Kerry to answer George Bush about whether, “knowing what we know now” (that there were no weapons of mass destruction), he would have supported the Bush decision. “Yes, I would have voted for the authority.”
“Oh my God!” I turned to my wife and said, “He just lost the election!”
Euphemism is inherent in centrist realpolitik. Kerry would tell reporters: “I think it was the right decision to disarm Hussein.”
Disarm? The U.S. did not just disarm Hussein. The U.S. Air Force bombed Bagdad and other populated cities. Thousands of children were injured or killed. Museums with 2,000-year-old artifacts were looted. Muslims were tortured at Abu Ghraib. Rivers were drenched with oil and set on fire. Refugees fled into Syria. American soldiers and Iraqi civilians became sick, and babies were born with deformities from U.S. depleted uranium.
(Kerry now supports the candidacy of Joe Biden, who also voted for the war in Iraq and, like Kerry, equivocates about the real meaning of his vote.)
Hillary Clinton, The Hawk
Hillary Clinton ran against the most unpopular candidate in the history of presidential elections. And lost. Until we recognize how such an ignominious defeat was possible, voters are likely to make the same mistake again, to run the Clinton campaign one more time -- with a new face, of course, Joe Biden.
Let us recall the pivotal debate between Trump and Clinton over foreign policy. When Trump denounced Clinton’s infamous Iraq war vote, he was able to present himself as a kind of peace candidate who would halt endless wars. Trump understands centrist vulnerability. He put Clinton on the defensive, and she was helpless. Everyone knew she was a hawk. And it was disingenuous of her to portray her war vote as some isolated mistake, something out of the ordinary, when all Washington knew she was an interventionist, a voter for military budgets, for sanctions, arms sales to dictators, a foreign policy wheeler-dealer with experience.
The Future Is Progressive
Now the question is: are we so oblivious to the record of centrist equivocations and defeats that we are ready to nominate another flip flopper like Joe Biden? Biden would be the third nominee who cast a vote to empower the Bush 2003 invasion of Iraq. We become masochists if we send another equivocating candidate into the political ring.
I realize the specter of another Trump victory is terrifying. Corporate media exploits our fear in order to maintain the status quo. But the centrist theory of elections is especially dangerous now because it is the kind of anticipatory submission to the dark forces we want to overcome.
Bernie Is More Electable
I believe Sanders has a better chance of defeating Trump than Biden or any centrist candidate. Sanders does not dwell on the white middle class alone. His campaign reaches beyond the party establishment to the chronically unemployed, to the poor, the unhoused, the young, rising electorate of the time. Victory over Trump requires a mass coalition strategy.
In contrast, the Green New Deal is inclusive. Its preamble calls attention to the “large racial wealth divide in the U.S. amounting to a difference of 20 times more wealth between the average white family and average black family.”
“Every person in this country must have a right to:
I believe history will vindicate the message of Bernie Sanders. Texan Jim Hightower got it right: “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”
Published in In Motion Magazine February 9, 2020.
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