Kessel: Partying Like It’s 1972

Zach Kessel, Op-Ed Contributor

Leading up to the 1972 election, President Richard Nixon’s approval rate hovered from 49 to 62 percent.

How, then, did he go on to win 49 states in one of the largest electoral landslides in this country’s history?

The answer is a time-honored Democratic Party tradition – snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The 1972 Democratic presidential primary field was among the deepest in any modern presidential election. The Democrats’ stacked roster included former Vice President and Senator Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.), former senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.), U.S. Sens. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) and Henry Jackson (D-Wash.), as well as New York City Mayor John Lindsay, among others. Muskie was especially prepared to compete in the general election, polling either ahead of or near Nixon in the months preceding the 1972 Democratic National Convention.

Muskie was the candidate in a position to win the White House, so of course the Democrats declined to nominate him. Instead, they nominated U.S. Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.). At the convention, his platform called for guaranteed government jobs, federally-provided income for those out of work and a universal single-payer healthcare system. He went on to lose every state except Massechussetts, failing even to win his home state of South Dakota.

For people keeping tabs on the current Democratic primaries, the similarities between the two cycles are apparent. This cycle’s Ed Muskie is Joe Biden, and the modern parallel to George McGovern is Elizabeth Warren. In recent polling, Trump defeats Warren in key states, while Biden holds a narrow lead.

The Democratic Party needs to decide whether it wants to win the election or fulfill its leftward-most fantasies.

To be fair, it’s important to discuss what the party stands for. But to have that conversation during an election year is an incredible miscalculation.

It is absolutely possible for the Democrats to run a platform that resonates with the majority of American voters. It seems like that’s not really what they want to do.

The majority of American voters support immigration reform and regulations to fight climate change. What the American voters overwhelmingly do not support is decriminalizing border crossings, the Green New Deal and a ban on fracking.

In modern American politics, the Democratic nominee for president has only won the general election under very special circumstances. In 1976, Jimmy Carter ran against Gerald Ford, who had just pardoned Nixon. The American people wanted the country to go in a different direction, and Carter’s campaign centered around honesty and his outsider status. In 1992 and 2008, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, respectively, were elected as two of the country’s greatest presidential candidates, regardless of party. Clinton had the advantage of running against a president not entirely interested in domestic policy in George H.W. Bush, and Obama had the good fortune of running during a financial crisis that began under the other party’s watch.

Yes, the 2020 election is a special set of circumstances, but the Democrats don’t have any great candidates. There is nobody in the field who captures the imagination quite like Clinton or Obama or who perfectly fits the country’s mood like Carter.

The Democrats have one more issue.

In American presidential politics, there are two types of elections — choice elections and referendum elections. Choice elections ask the electorate to choose between two candidates’ platforms, while referendums allow the voters to air their grievances with an incumbent. The best thing the Democrats could do to help President Donald Trump win reelection would be to make 2020 a choice election, and that’s exactly what they’re doing. To take advantage of that special set of circumstances — to give themselves a chance to win — the Democrats need to make the upcoming election about one thing and one thing only: Trump’s inability to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.

So what can the Democrats do to win?

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

They don’t have an exceptional candidate, their most progressive flank is out of touch with the electorate and the electoral map heavily favors Trump.

The Democrats need to make the election about the Trump’s fitness for office, or lack thereof. People forget that the president’s approval rate has not broken the 43 percent mark since two months into his term. Make the election a referendum on Trump, and voters will respond. Make it a choice between Trump and a faceless socialist, and you’ve given the election away.

There’s a reason why the GOP has yet to set the dogs on Warren, and it’s the same reason why Nixon declined to personally campaign against McGovern in 1972. A Warren nomination would essentially hand Trump a second term. He knows this, and the Republican Party knows this, just as it did in 1972. It is within the Democratic Party’s power to defeat perhaps the most dangerous president this country has ever seen, but to do so, it must resist the temptation to give in to its ideological id. Otherwise, the modern-day Nixon will traipse his way back into the Oval Office with four more years, unencumbered by an upcoming election.

If what we’ve seen so far is any indication, those four years will be even worse than the first, and the country will have the Democratic Party to blame.

Zach Kessel is a Communication freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.