- - Tuesday, March 12, 2019


Democrats are closer to reliving their 1972 presidential debacle than they realize. Fueled by internal reforms, an insurgent left and hatred for the incumbent, George McGovern-led Democrats self-destructed themselves into landslide defeat. These same elements are again surfacing, and President Trump is in even better position to take benefit than Richard Nixon was almost half a century ago.

There is an uncanny parallel between 1972’s presidential race and the one taking shape today. Democrats dismissed Nixon as a poor candidate — a lackluster VP and presidential loser; Democrats similarly dismissed Mr. Trump two years ago. Yet because Democrats split, Nixon went on to win 1968 with just 43 percent of the vote. Because of Hillary Clinton’s unfocused campaign, Mr. Trump won with just 46 percent. In office, Nixon’s policies alienated many, but particularly incensed the left by expanding the Vietnam War he had pledged to end. Mr. Trump’s policies have also estranged many, but most especially the left.

Unwittingly, by 1972 Democrats had let their opponent lead them into fundamentally reshaping themselves to their own disadvantage. Today’s Democrats appear to be doing the same.

Democrats’ 1972 nominating rules reduced the role of their establishment, throwing open the doors to outside activists with no stake in the party’s former New Deal coalition. Forgotten now, that coalition had strong conservative elements. The new would not.

Designed by South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, the new system relied on primaries to pick the nominee. McGovern took full advantage. Backed by the insurgent left of the anti-war movement, and with moderates and conservatives splitting their votes, he won the nomination despite losing the popular vote.

The collapse began at the Miami convention. Almost immediately, McGovern had to replace his VP pick, Sen. Thomas Eagleton. However, he was repeatedly rejected by more seasoned party figures, finally persuading a Kennedy in-law, Sargent Shriver, onto the ticket. The unraveling degenerated into historic rout — he won just 37.5 percent of the popular vote and only 17 electoral votes.

Democrats despised Nixon, who had backed into the White House, cakewalked to re-election.

The parallels to 2020 are striking. Mr. Trump won the presidency only by perfectly placing his minority popular vote on the Electoral College map. Democrats disgusted with Mrs. Clinton — and the party elite who backed her — lurched left toward their activist wing with anti-establishment reform. Gone from 2020’s nominating process will be the moderating influence of establishment super delegates — unelected free agents, who overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016.

In office, Mr. Trump has been the Democrats’ bad dream, but their left’s worst nightmare. Already strong from 2016, Mr. Trump’s presidency has strengthened these insurgents further. As the 2020 field takes rapid shape, the left is overly — if not entirely — represented in it. A nominee from outside the left is hard to imagine — and even harder to accomplish.

In 1972, Democrats helped elevate Nixon from lucky to landslide. While he had a good economy and foreign policy successes, his most meaningful leverage for victory was supplied by his opponents’ implosion.

In 2020, Democrats appear to be shadowing a 1972 redux. Mr. Trump won a higher percentage of the popular vote in 2016 than Nixon did in 1968. Mr. Trump is likely to have a comparatively stronger economy and his own foreign policy successes. More importantly, he is likely to have Nixon’s biggest benefit: An opponent from the left.

The Democrats’ current field is qualitatively and quantitatively more to the left than it was almost five decades ago. Then, McGovern coalesced the left’s support and used it to overwhelm the party’s divided moderates and conservatives. Today’s Democratic left does not need to split the rest of the party to win; instead, the reverse must occur for them to lose.

As 1972 forcefully reminds, a presidential race is not run in isolation. It is run in comparison. Nixon, who won just 43 percent of 1968’s popular vote, did not become 18 percentage points more popular in four years. His landslide’s magnitude was due more to his opponent’s reduction than his elevation. Unmistakably that reduction came predominantly from Democrats’ leftward lurch.

Much has changed in almost half a century. Yet, Democrats are betting heavily that their 2020 victory is a sure thing and their opponent will save them from their own excesses. As 1972 demonstrates, the reverse is more plausible as they methodically replicate its essential elements. If they are not careful — and increasingly, lucky — they will have to relive their two worst nightmares: Yesterday’s and today’s.

• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and the Treasury Department.

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