Was that Ronald Reagan in 1980, evangelizing for smaller, less-intrusive government as he campaigned against Jimmy Carter? Was it Barry Goldwater, echoing a theme from The Conscience of a Conservative during his longshot 1964 attempt to unseat Lyndon Johnson? Was it Mitt Romney, contrasting his view of a properly restrained federal establishment with Barack Obama's exorbitant Keynesianism?
McGovern died this week at age 90, triggering memories of one of the most lopsided elections in history, when Americans recoiled from a candidate whose party had swerved sharply to the left. Republicans in 1972 memorably tagged McGovern as "the candidate of acid, amnesty, and abortion." The description may not have been precise – McGovern favored only the decriminalization of marijuana and believed abortion should be regulated by the states – but there was no denying the radical turn the Democratic Party had taken, alienating millions of its followers in the process. "This man's ideas aren't liberal; this man's ideas are crazy," lamented AFL-CIO president George Meany, who had long been a party stalwart. That reputation stuck. To this day, "McGovernite" is a synonym for off-the-deep-end liberalism.
Yet McGovern himself was never a lockstep McGovernite, as his words about a "vast" government taking "too much in taxes" would suggest. In The Age of Reagan, which chronicles American political life between 1964 and 1980, historian Steven Hayward observes that McGovern's misfortune was that the liberal interest groups he rode to the Democratic nomination ended up riding him. He repeatedly caved in to pressure from "the cause people," campaign manager Frank Mankiewicz later regretted. "If I had it to do all over again, I'd learn when to tell them to go to hell."
Actually, it was George McGovern, the quintessential bleeding-heart liberal, just days before his 1972 presidential campaign was buried under Richard Nixon's 49-state landslide.
In truth, while McGovern's politics were decidedly left of center, his personal values -- "dyed deeply in the American grain," as an admiring profile in The American Conservative once put it -- reflected classic heartland conservatism. He was a World War II bomber pilot who flew 35 combat missions and was decorated for valor, but refused to boast of his bravery on the campaign trail. He was a devoted St. Louis Cardinals fan. He loved singing hymns in the Mitchell, S.D., church he belonged to all his life.
"I always thought of myself as a good old South Dakota boy who grew up here on the prairie," McGovern told the New York Times in 2005. "My dad was a Methodist minister. I went off to war. I have been married to the same woman forever. I'm what a normal, healthy, ideal American should be like."
Nowadays politically-correct liberals don't speak that way, but in his later years McGovern had no patience for PC orthodoxy. His post-Washington experience in the private sector – he bought a Connecticut inn, which eventually failed – gave him valuable insight into the miseries government inflicts on small businesses.
"I'm for a clean environment and economic justice," McGovern wrote in 1993, but those worthy goals do not justify "the incredible paperwork, the complicated tax forms, the number of minute regulations, and the seemingly endless reporting requirements that afflict American business." Many small businesses "simply can't pass such costs on to their customers and remain competitive or profitable." To his credit, he didn't just absorb the lesson that overregulation stifles enterprise: He also expressed pangs for not learning it earlier. "That knowledge would have made me a better legislator and a more worthy aspirant to the White House."
That wasn't the only issue on which McGovern broke ranks with the McGovernite wing of the Democratic Party. He spoke out strongly against union-backed "card-check" legislation, which would deny employees a private vote on whether to unionize their workplace. He condemned "economic paternalism," like the effort to put payday lenders out of business. "Why do we think we are helping adult consumers by taking away their options?" he asked.
The Democratic Party was sadly diminished by its McGovernite lurch. McGovern himself, always an honest and honorable man, grew only more admirable with time.