For centrist Dems, George McGovern is the ghost of lost elections past. Credit: warren k. leffler

Of all the panic being peddled by centrist Democrats to scare voters out of voting for Bernie Sanders, the scariest fantasy is one I call Horror House.

It’s the one in which Bernie’s nomination leads to utter devastation as Trump wins reelection, and Republicans hold on to the Senate, recapture the House of Representatives, and win over some state legislatures for good measure. Just in time to gerrymander the Democratic Party out of existence.

Just reciting that scenario has me breaking into a sweat. I feel like the Elizabeth Moss character in The Invisible Man who’s constantly looking over her shoulder for her deranged ex-boyfriend whom she can’t see because . . . he’s invisible!

So, let me take the time to say that just like The Invisible Man, the Horror House is just the product of devious minds. In this case those minds are James Carville, Mayor Rahm, and other old centrist fogies working on behalf of Bloomberg or Biden or anyonewho might beat Bernie.

Hey, Elizabeth Warren supporters—don’t get smug. They’d be using Horror House against you if she were higher in the polls. If she wins a few primaries, trust me, they will.

Like any good scary movie, Horror House is loosely based on something real—the presidential election of 1972, in which President Richard Nixon trounced Senator George McGovern, his Democratic opponent.

Nixon won every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, which, of course, is not a state.

While I’m on the subject—if Democrats had any guts or sense they’d be fighting like hell to make the District of Columbia a state, just as they would be fighting to abolish the electoral college, which always works to their disadvantage. But, alas, my beloved Democrats have no sense or guts. They’d rather spend their time fighting against Bernie. 

Back to McGovern. There are some parallels between McGovern and Sanders in that both are taking on the party establishment.

McGovern’s nomination followed a heated primary season that led to a contentious convention in which the faction loyal to Mayor Richard J. Daley walked out.

It got so bad that lifelong Chicago Democrats like Alderman Vito Marzullo endorsed Nixon.

The Republicans gleefully played one faction of the Democratic Party against the other, writing off McGovern as the leader of a movement for “Amnesty, Acid, and Abortion”—far removed from mainstream America.

The lesson taken from the election by ambitious young Democrats—like Bill Clinton, who worked for McGovern in Texas—was that they would never allow the party to drift too far from the center.

It’s a lesson they’re trying to reinforce in today’s campaign, even though many voters weren’t even born back in 1972.

By the way, I, too, was traumatized by the 1972 election. It haunts me to this day—which is why, like any boomer, I’m so vulnerable to the scare tactics of Rahm, Carville, and the Clintons.

Back in ‘72, I was a hugely idealistic high school senior with posters of McGovern on my bedroom wall.

I volunteered for McGovern. On election day, the campaign sent me to some north shore suburb where I went door-to-door begging people to vote Democratic.

As I recall, it was raining. Or maybe I just imagined it was raining because Nixon voters kept slamming their doors in my face. Or maybe I just imagined them slamming doors in my face.

Point is—we got walloped. And as the votes came in, I wailed at the moon and wrote angry denunciations of the voters in my diary, which I will spare you from reading. You’re welcome.

But in retrospect, that election wasn’t so bad. Even in the face of the Nixon landslide, the Democrats held on to the House and the Senate. In fact, they won two extra Senate seats.

It was like a split verdict. The voters may have liked Nixon more than McGovern, but they didn’t want to give Nixon too much power. So they voted for Democrats further down the ballot. Exactly the opposite of what Carville, et al. say they will do in this election.

I know this from firsthand experience. In 1972, I was also going door-to-door on behalf of Abner Mikva, a Democrat running for Congress.

Mikva lost, but he did a lot better than McGovern in his district. And two years later he was victorious, and the Democrats have held onto that seat ever since.

You see, voters are not as stupid as Carville and Rahm would have you believe. At least, they know how to split their vote.

Put this in the current perspective. Say you’re a swing voter in Sean Casten’s 6thCongressional district out in the western suburbs. And say you voted for him in 2018 because you were sick and tired of the Republican Party’s anti-science ideology, or its rigid opposition to abortion rights, or its efforts to kill Obamacare, or the overall lunacy of Trump.

But say you’re too middle-of-the-road to vote for Bernie. So—gulp—you vote for Trump. That doesn’t mean you’ll turn around and vote to give Trump even more power by voting against Casten.

Especially if your choice is Jeanne Ives, who’s so ideologically to the right that she almost makes Trump look like a liberal.

No, you’re likely to vote for Casten even if you voted for Trump in order to elect one candidate to protect you from the consequences of electing the other.

Back to McGovern. It seems that the country has embraced the three-A stereotype of his campaign. Think about it. Amnesty referred to letting draft resisters in Canada come home. OK, Nixon didn’t do that, but his successors did.

As for acid—well, reefer’s legal in many states, including Illinois.

And, yes, the Republicans are still waging war against abortion rights. But pro-choice candidates have the upper hand in those swing districts that flipped to the Dems in 2018.

The centrists may never tire of using McGovern as their bogeyman. But in some ways, McGovern actually won even while losing.  v