My Reaction to the 1972 Democratic Primary Debate

This is the 1972 McGovern vs Humphrey debate from Face the Nation.

This is chronologically the first of 3 debates I could find from the ’72 cycle, after searching for a year. Unfortunately, I could not find video or even audio, only PDF files of written transcripts. It’s far from ideal, because part of what I evaluate when I watch politicians’ debate or speech performances is oration, not just rhetoric alone. Still, I’m gonna share my thoughts on one of these, but keep in mind I’ve got a huge bias. George McGovern is my gold standard of what a civil servant and a man ought to be, while Humphrey is last generation’s Hillary as far as I’m concerned. What I mean by that is, he was a weak candidate who lacked charisma, sabotaged the progressives and ultimately harmed his own party. If you wanna follow along, you can read a transcript here. The other two transcripts I was able to recover can be found here and here.

(May 28)

McGovern’s answer to the first question, asked if Nixon can be defeated, was a lot more in-depth and honest than Humphrey’s answer, who only spoke in vague platitudes. Luckily, this wonderful answer has been preserved online.

I think with regards to the second question, Humphrey really slipped up talking about California’s delegates first and foremost. That, to me, exposes a self serving agenda rather than a respect for California as a state, or its great economy. Its that distinct lack of a humanistic instinct that really drives home the comparison to Hillary. He also accentuates his experience at various levels of government…and if I had to hear one more time that Hillary was a Senator, Secretary and First Lady…

I had been warned beforehand that Humphrey was going to go heavily on the attack in this debate. They discussed it in One Bright Shining Moment and a few other sources I found online in my search. He begins doing so in the second round of questions, accusing McGovern of being wrong on Vietnam, Israel and a host of other issues foreign and domestic. I found McGovern’s rebuttal to the part about Vietnam online and posted it to YouTube myself, it can be found embedded below, at the end of the essay. Something that’s also pretty cool is, when defending himself on his position of the budget McGovern fearlessly stresses the need to curb military spending and cites Eisenhower’s farewell address. I see that cited by political critics like myself all the time, but this is the first I’ve ever seen a sitting politician do so. Nowadays Democrats seem to be afraid of openly declaring their wishes to scale back the military, for fear of being seen as “not supporting the troops.”

The moderator tries to zero in on the topic of Vietnam and Humphrey once again launches into a series of criticisms against McGovern, such that the Moderator has to step in again to focus him on Vietnam. It’s obvious at this point why Humphrey was so eager to drift into other topics. He cannot answer the question of why he is best suited to solve Vietnam, he can only say that McGovern would be no better than him. It’s a weak strategy to me; it’s like that insecure guy making mean “jokes” about the other men at the party to look better by comparison. It’s transparently insecure, and accomplishes little except to hand some juicy lines of attack to the opposition party in the general.

The moderator specifically calls out Humphrey’s hypocrisy in claiming that McGovern’s proposed $58 billion defense budget is too low when Humphrey himself apparently wrote an essay claiming the budget could be as low as $50 billion. This is where Humphrey launches into his infamous rant about McGovern leaving the troops exposed which they talked about in One Bright Shining Moment. This line of attack would be repeated against McGovern in the general, often with the soundbite “cutting into the very muscle of our military” or similar phrases. It’s a devastating line of attack and unfortunately it did a good deal of damage even if it’s misleading (because the defense budget is too high.)

To defend himself, George will cite the same article where Humphrey listed the $50B figure for an appropriate military budget. Humphrey’s counter argument “oh, well that number was based on 1970 dollars, and since then inflation has gone up” does not hold water to me. It seems like a weak cop-out excuse to attack McGovern on his proposed military cuts when privately Humphrey probably felt similarly. Humphrey’s wishy-washy non-answer when the moderators try to get him to cite a new, specific figure seems to confirm my take. So does his inability to state what precisely the threat is which would require such an exorbitant budget in the first place. This whole line of criticism is Humphrey’s sad attempt to grasp at straws, nothing more and nothing less.

Despite their differences in every other walk of life, McGovern is similar to Trump in his point that it’s silly for Americans to shoulder the burden of maintaining all these bases and 500,000 troops in Europe while those countries’ respective economies are perfectly capable of supporting their own defense. (See Trump’s open letter to the New York Times.) That’s a point Trump consistently raised since the 80’s, one that I’ve agreed with for years myself, and one of the reasons why he got elected. McGovern was a man of the future; his ideals would be far more popular today than they were in the ’70s when America had yet to feel the full effects of domestic neglect in the name of jingoism and global corporate imperialism.

I raise this next point as a huge supporter of basic income: McGovern unfortunately shat the bed in not being able to quote an exact figure, or even provide an estimate or range, of what his program would cost. I understand the challenge since his idea involved replacing all of the existing welfare programs, but as a new and virtually unheard-of idea, he should have done the math by this point to sell the proposal to viewers. That was a genuine misstep and he deserves criticism for being so ill-prepared.

McGovern is able to clarify that his program would leave everyone making less than $12,000 (~ $77,000 in 2017) would see a net benefit. He also proposes a minimum income for a family of four at $4K (~ $24K in ’17) as opposed to Humphrey’s minimum income of $3K and a few minor reforms to the existing welfare programs. The biggest change Humphrey proposes is redistributing responsibilities to the federal government.

It’s very telling that Humphrey attack against McGovern’s tax/welfare reform is “everyone on welfare” and “government in everything.” Those are the words of a conservative Republican, not what I’d expect to hear from a progressive Democrat. It just shows either how desperate Humphrey was to win or how out of touch with the New Left he had become. Either way I think using attacks like that against a fellow liberal are self-sabotaging to the whole cause of the left. It’s dogging the progressives by sucking up to the other party’s talking points. This has been my issue with the Democrats for decades: they always try to meet in the middle while the Republicans continually shift further to the right, as opposed to offering bold, unapologetic liberalism. As a progressive Leftest myself it’s very frustrating because there hasn’t ever been a party that represents my ideals since the ’60s because of this kind of bullshit in-fighting brought upon by the Centrists. Call me crass, but fuck Humphrey for beginning this trend.

McGovern’s closing statement was very powerful, straightforward, and just as relevant today as it was over 40 years ago. It reminds me a lot of Bernie Sanders’ opening statement in the first primary debate from 2016. Humphrey’s, by contrast, once again screamed of Hillary-blandness. He emphasizes his record in terms of titles, but not actual accomplishments or values to go with it. He attacks McGovern once again and speaks of having a vision but doesn’t say what it is. McGovern essentially ignored Humphrey and spoke directly to the people about what his own vision actually entails. It’s the difference between a principled idealist and a vacuous career politician.

Overall, this is an interesting debate. I’ve been searching for it because I love McGovern and am desperate to see everything he’s been in. It became more interesting to me after hearing that Humphrey went off on the poor guy in a desperate bid to tear down the rising star poised to win the nomination through his own natural momentum. Reading the events of a debate doesn’t have quite the same appeal because I cannot judge mannerisms, tone or personal magnetism. Still, based on this, and admitting my biases upfront, I would say McGovern won. He spoke of his ideas, while Humphrey essentially spent the whole debate sneaking in pot shots. Unfortunately McGovern then had to spend a lot of the time on the defensive, which according to some of the sources I’ve read about ’72, did a lot of damage to him against Nixon in the general.

1 Comment

  1. Another very fine example of Political analysis. Thanks to you I have discovered a man that would have made a fine leader for this country, George McGovern, as a College student at that time I never took the time to get to know him or what he stood for. I remember becoming biased against in after reading a editorial with a caricatured of him derssed as Robin Hood and then not taking him seriously after that. Wish I had been more politically aware at the time. I don’t think I ever saw this debate before. After watching this, and hearing what you have told me about him and reading what you have written, I have a whole different perspective on this man. Once again Cassandra thankyou for raising my awareness. This is another fine example of political analysis.

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