George McGovern: Barack Obama, Democrats Need a Backbone

The one-time presidential candidate discusses what it means to be a "McGovern Liberal."

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George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1972 who also served in the House and Senate, embodies liberal politics so much that his name is evoked pejoratively by conservatives. In What It Means to Be a Democrat, McGovern makes a plea to his party to uphold the values that it used to stand for. McGovern recently spoke with U.S. News about partisanship and what the Democrats should do next. Excerpts:

What does it mean to be a Democrat?

Democrats believe that the federal government is not our enemy, it's our partner.

How is today's Democratic Party doing?

I think it needs a little more backbone. I'm for President Obama and I hope he'll be re-elected. But I think both he and the Democrats in the Congress need a little dose of backbone-itis to stand for the kinds of things that a progressive liberal party should endorse.

[Read more Book Club interviews in U.S. News Weekly, now available on the iPad.]

Should welfare programs be cut to help with the deficit?

Well, the first thing we need to do is to recognize the basic cause of our present $14 trillion [national debt]. When I was a youngster growing up in South Dakota, we never referred to the national debt, it was always referred to as the war debt because it stemmed from World War I. Well, what we have now, at least two thirds of it, is the war debt. We're never going to make a substantial cut in that debt until we quit getting into these unnecessary wars.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit]

Why do you think the antiwar movement didn't gain traction with Iraq as it did with Vietnam?

People didn't have the political guts to stand up against an American war. It took plenty of that back in '63 when I made my first speech against the Vietnam War. My knees were knocking as much as they ever did on those bombing missions I was flying as a bomber pilot in World War II. But for some reason, we don't seem to have the same political courage. People are fearful of defeat, they're fearful of demagoguery, they're fearful of the flag wavers.

What about Occupy Wall Street?

Many Americans believe that this recession was brought on by reckless behavior on the part of big banks and Wall Street. And I think there's something to that. So it's a good thing to march and carry signs and support each other. It lets these individuals know that the American people are not asleep.

[See photos of Occupy Wall Street protests.]

Which element of your 1972 platform would have served the country best had you won?

I called for the immediate withdrawal of all forces from Vietnam. After [Nixon's] four years [as president], we had [already] lost almost half of the men that were killed in the Vietnam War. I think I was absolutely right in calling for an immediate end to the war. I think I said it could be accomplished in 60 days.

You recently spoke with President Obama about bringing the troops home.

He was kind enough to agree to see me, even though he knew I was coming in with a critical appraisal. I [said I] don't agree with this war in Afghanistan and I think we should get out of there. And he said, well, how do you do that? I said, with trucks, the same way we got in there. Load the men up in trucks and take them to the nearest port and bring them home. Well, he said, you can't just withdraw like that. I said, why not? That's how we got in, we just decided to plunge in there. And he said, you know you're preaching to the choir. I said, no I'm not, Mr. President, I'm talking to you, who added another 30,000 to 50,000 troops.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Is Washington partisanship different today?

When I was in the House and then later in the Senate, a total of 22 years, I frequently reached across the aisle and gathered support from some of the Republicans who were reaching back. I teamed up with Bob Dole a number of times. We reformed and expanded school lunches, the food stamp program, and we started a new program for low-income pregnant and nursing mothers. None of those programs would have sailed through Congress if they just had the name McGovern on them, or just had the name Dole on them. Now today you don't see that.