In these final days of the 2012 campaign, there’s a lesson in the lives and legacies of McGovern and another presidential candidate who also endured one of the biggest electoral losses in modern history: the right-wing Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was defeated in a landslide by incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. In 1972, incumbent Richard Nixon defeated McGovern, also in a landslide. Both McGovern and Goldwater came to be seen in better lights as the years went by, and, in the end, both are remembered for remaining true to their unabashed politics.
Roughly put, American politics has been driven by two kinds of practitioners of the craft: the ideologues and the pragmatists. The categories are necessarily imprecise, but the distinction can be a useful one in assessing the candidates of the moment. Political movements tend to succeed when an ideologue sets the stage for a pragmatist of the same essential disposition to carry on the work in a more politically palatable way. So it was with Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and so it was with McGovern and Bill Clinton. One thing is clear about 2012: neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney is a Goldwater or a McGovern, destined to lose because of an unflinching philosophical creed. So the question is whether either man is a Clinton or a Reagan, a pragmatist likely to succeed by working within existing traditions.