For three decades, top Democrats kept George McGovern at arm’s length. Unlike Republicans, who made quick peace with Barry Goldwater after his overwhelming 1964 defeat, prominent Democrats disdained their nominee of 1972. The Democratic Leadership Council echoed GOP warnings about liberal “McGovernism” well into the 1990s.
But a funny thing has happened on the way to the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Leading contender Hillary Clinton did not merely accept McGovern’s endorsement at a recent Iowa rally. She told the crowd she might find a place in her administration for him. Why is Clinton reaching out to McGovern? She’s smart. The New York senator understands that the 85-year-old McGovern has achieved senior statesman status. Indeed, he jokes, “If everyone who stops me in the airport to say they voted for me in ’72 actually had, I’d have won by a landslide.” But Clinton also knows that support from an early and ardent foe of the Iraq War helps calm concerns among antiwar Democrats who have never warmed to her candidacy.
McGovern cuts Clinton no slack for her 2002 vote to authorize Bush’s Iraq War. But he argues that Clinton understands the war must end. “She said if by any chance Bush were to continue the war that after 2008 she’d terminate it,” he tells doubters. “That’s about all you can expect.” There are plenty of Democrats who expect more, and rightly so; Clinton’s rhetoric about how “the era of cowboy diplomacy is over” sounds fine, but her vagueness on withdrawal from Iraq and her tough talk on Iran raise questions about whether the spurs are really off. That said, Clinton’s recognition of the value of McGovern’s endorsement says something important about the frontrunner: unlike less savvy Democrats, she realizes that the old antiwarrior now stands in the mainstream of her party and the nation.