WASHINGTON — The death of George McGovern on the eve of the presidential candidates’ foreign policy debate underscored a momentous political reversal spanning four decades. McGovern’s nomination for president in 1972, a consequence of the Democratic Party’s recoil against the Vietnam War and the riotous convention four years earlier, made the country uneasy about his party regarding national security. Four decades later, however, voters may be more ambivalent about America’s world role than at any time since the 1930s.
Hence the sense of tediousness Monday evening. The candidates — who really do not differ all that much about foreign policy, although they constantly pretend otherwise — sort of argued for 90 minutes about matters concerning which most voters do not really care very much, although they occasionally pretend otherwise.
Forty Octobers ago, McGovern’s slogan was “Come home, America,” and he lost 49 states. Today, his slogan probably summarizes the foreign policy thinking, to the extent there is any, of at least a plurality of Americans, and perhaps a majority. Which is why Barack Obama thrice insisted he is hot for “nation-building” here at home. And about 35 minutes into the supposed foreign policy debate, Mitt Romney pirouetted into praise of Medicaid reforms in Arizona and Rhode Island, and then professions of love for teachers. In a time when consensus is elusive, the candidates agreed on the imperative need to do something to lower Americans’ standard of living by making imports from China more expensive.
Obama explained that he waged a war of regime change in Libya not, as he said at the time, because of a humanitarian responsibility to protect Libyans from Moammar Gaddafi, but rather because Gaddafi “had more American blood on his hands” than anyone then living.
So it turns out this war actually was a delayed response to the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Romney has said he wants somehow to give Syrians “who share our values” — Syria’s Jeffersonian caucus? — heavy weapons “to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.” In the debate he spoke of organizing “responsible parties within Syria” but without America being “drawn into a military conflict,” and without enforcing a no-fly zone.
Deploring the “rising tide of chaos” in the Middle East, Romney vows to “move the world away from” Islamic extremism. Such promises have a distinguished pedigree. Woodrow Wilson said: “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!”
Russia is a third-world country with an extraction economy — it extracts oil, gas and minerals from the ground and caviar from sturgeon — but Romney says it is our “number one geopolitical foe,” although he says the biggest threat to America is a nuclear Iran. Both candidates agree that preventing a nuclear Iran is worth a fourth (counting Libya) U.S. war in that region. Romney thinks America should have “a military second to none,” which it will have until the next dozen or so largest militaries merge.
The remarkable fecundity of the George W. Bush administration rolls on. Its domestic policy of incontinent spending enkindled the most potent protest movement — the tea party — since the overlapping movements against the Vietnam War and for civil rights legislation. And Bush’s foreign policy helped to move the nation in McGovern’s direction.
President George H.W. Bush hoped that his 100-hour Gulf War against Iraq would banish the “Vietnam Syndrome,” which made Americans hesitant about military interventions. His son’s intervention produced an Iraq Syndrome that we should hope will be more durable than its Vietnam predecessor, which McGovern nurtured.
McGovern was the second major-party nominee with a Ph.D., which he earned at Northwestern University under Arthur Link, the foremost biographer of the first such nominee, Woodrow Wilson. Like Wilson, McGovern was a minister’s son. Wilson brought moral zeal to “the war to end all wars.” McGovern’s anti-war passion — in September 1963 he became one of two senators (Oregon’s Wayne Morse was the other) to oppose U.S. involvement in Vietnam during the Kennedy administration — was honorably acquired in the next great war: He flew 35 missions over Germany, where half the B-24 crews did not survive and suffered a higher fatality rate than the Marines on the Pacific islands.
In 1917, Wilson inserted America into the whitewater rapids of world politics. In 1972, with the Cold War still being waged, McGovern prematurely suggested retrenchment. Four decades and 10 presidential campaigns later, however, the nation is near a semi-McGovern moment. Both of today’s candidates seem to know this.