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Barack Hussein McGovern

The specter of 1972 is haunting the Obama ­campaign.

Aug 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 45 • By MARK STRICHERZ
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Forty years ago this summer, in July 1972, social liberals made their political debut at the Democratic National Convention. Gloria Steinem- and Gore Vidal-style activists were not shy about their goals. The women’s rights movement had secured two major victories that spring, Title IX funding and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in Congress, and cultural liberals hoped to secure two more at the convention in Miami Beach. “Ours is a pluralistic society, and I believe the Democratic party has an obligation no matter what the background of the individual candidates to include this issue as a fundamental right,” Sissy Farenthold, a candidate for governor of Texas, said in support of a plank favoring unrestricted access to contraception and abortion. “The various and diverse gay liberation movements realize that achieving liberation will require a new morality and an expanded understanding of human nature,” California delegate Jim Foster said in a plank urging the party to work to strike down anti-sodomy laws.

Barack Hussein McGovern

Both planks were defeated on the floor. Even more important, many Democratic regulars reached a conclusion that was as applicable then as now: Cultural liberals forced the party’s presidential nominee to run too far ahead of public opinion on gay rights and feminism. Representative James O’Hara of Michigan, the 46-year-old chairman of a reform commission on party rules, said after the election that McGovern’s association with the -counterculture doomed his presidential bid: “The American people made an association between McGovern and gay lib, and welfare rights, and pot-smoking, and black militants,
and women’s lib, and wise college kids, and everything else they saw as threatening their value system. I think it was all over right then and there.”

How times have changed. Many national Democratic leaders have done more than tolerate cultural liberalism. Taking a page from the playbook of George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign, they are pinning President Obama’s reelection strategy on it. In an interview in May, senior campaign adviser David Plouffe described the strategy this way: “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what [Mitt Romney] would do as president,’ ” he told New York magazine. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.” Plouffe’s words have not fallen on deaf ears. Besides the administration’s mandate of free contraception and sterilization services in health insurance policies and Obama’s coming out in favor of marriage equality, the Obama campaign is running ads in swing states that accuse Romney of being an extremist on abortion.

Is running on social liberalism now the royal road to 270 electoral votes? Talk with political scientists and pollsters, and they say no, not really; this election will be decided on the state of the economy, or they say that Obama’s positions on gay marriage and abortion are a wash politically. “I would say [Obama’s gay-marriage stand] hurts him in empty-nest and service-worker communities,” says political analyst and author Dante Chinni, “but it helps him in suburban areas such as boom towns and college towns.”

Perhaps, but changes in demographics and attitudes may not have come as far as Obama campaign officials believe. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in July, one in five voters said that the “decline of moral and religious values” is one of their biggest worries about America’s future, which outstripped their worries about the “increasing role of government” and “lack of safety/terrorist threats.” Millions of those voters are working-class and religious Democrats as well as independents.

Gay marriage is the issue most likely to hurt Obama. After his announcement on May 9 that he had changed his mind on the issue, Gallup concluded that “his new position is more of a net minus than a net plus for him.” Although 11 percent of independents and 2 percent of Republicans told pollsters they were more likely to vote for him, 23 percent of independents and 10 percent of Democrats said they were less likely. Last month, Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg reached a similar conclusion. While 29 percent of respondents said they had warm feelings about gay marriage, 40 percent had cold feelings.

The same trend was found in the swing state of Florida. According to a Quinnipiac University poll in late May, 23 percent of independents and 7 percent of Democrats said they were less likely to vote for Obama because of his support for gay marriage; only 9 percent of independents and 1 percent of Republicans said they were more likely to vote for him. Voters without a college degree were slightly more likely to say they were alienated by Obama’s decision.

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