Mitt Romney and the Legacy of George McGovern

George McGovern, the anti-war stalwart from South Dakota who suffered a historic defeat at the hands of Richard M. Nixon, said the following in his speech accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in 1972:

“National strength includes the credibility of our system in the eyes of our own people as well as the credibility of our deterrent in the eyes of others abroad.”

George McGovern in 1972

Mitt Romney has thus far opted not to heed this advice from the senator, who died on Sunday at age 90. Rather, the Republican nominee’s heavy reliance on cynical, duplicitous talking points indicates that he seeks not to speak with candor about sensitive subjects, but rather to improve his own electoral prospects. It is simply false, as Romney alleges, that the current commander-in-chief went around the world on an “Apology Tour.” President Obama was correct to recommend viewers consult the many media fact-checks available on this issue, because they are virtually unanimous in denouncing Romney’s accusation as wrong. The governor should produce evidence for his claim instead of merely asserting it, which he has done repeatedly.

More damaging to American credibility abroad is the refusal of the Republican nominee to acknowledge the foreign policy failures of the previous Republican administration. Remarkably, the governor has taken it a step further by surrounding himself with the most notorious Bush-era actors — John Bolton, Elliott Abrams, Dan Senor, Liz Cheney, et. al — which demonstrates a strong commitment to the Bush-era foreign policy vision. Romney expresses no remorse about supporting the decision to preemptively invade Iraq on false pretenses; he instead has declared our partial withdrawal to be the real “tragedy.”

“Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations,” Romney stated Monday night. “We have freed other nations from dictators.”

Is Mitt Romney arguing that America has not supported dictators in other nations? If so, this suggests an ignorance of basic U.S. history. George McGovern could have taught the governor a lesson or two — perhaps Romney is unaware of American policies with respect to, for example, Chile, Indonesia, Saddam Hussein, and Egypt.

In further contravention of McGovern’s advice, Romney sullies our image overseas when he addresses Iran and Syria with such unnecessarily bellicose rhetoric. “We need to indict Ahmadinejad,” he proclaimed during Monday night’s debate. Romney also characterized the situation in Syria as “an opportunity for us,” which seems like an odd thing to say about a conflict that has killed tens of thousands. He then pledged to “organize” parties there deemed friendly, thereby calling for increased American involvement in the Syrian sectarian conflict. This seems sure to further destabilize the conflict.

“When I entered the U.S. Senate in 1963, the defense budget was $51 billion,” George McGovern wrote about one year before his death. “This was at a time when our military experts felt it necessary to have the means to win a war against the combined powers of Russia and China. Today we have a military budget of over $700 billion, and yet neither Russia nor China threatens us, if indeed they ever did. Nor does any other nation.”

More good advice for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, who favor a dramatic increase in defense spending. During the debate Romney again reiterated his displeasure with the president’s supposed policy to “cut back on our military capabilities,” including reducing the size of naval fleets. (It was Paul Ryan and the House Republican caucus, we should recall, who cut a deal in summer 2011 mandating these sequestration cuts to the defense budget.) Romney seems to not have a clear understanding of Pentagon finances nor its policies.

Conversely, George McGovern took serious interest in foreign policy, embarking on many trips to tumultuous regions and meeting with leaders, like Fidel Castro, who were widely deemed “enemies” of America. At the debate, Romney mocked Obama for expressing desire to conduct diplomatic relations with purportedly hostile nations. “He said he would meet with all the world’s worst actors in his first year,” Romney barbed, “he’d sit down with Chavez and Kim Jong-il, with Castro and President Ahmadinejad of Iran.”

Does Romney’s insult here suggest a dedication to prudence in the management of foreign relations? It seems he instead takes every available opportunity to score cheap political points. John McCain, for all his many faults, evinced a sincere appreciation for the complexities of American diplomacy. The Romney worldview, by contrast, amounts to a mélange of ill-founded memes and talking points.

About michaeltracey

Journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Follow me on Twitter at @mtracey.


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