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How will Democrats do in the midterms — and 2020? Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election may offer clues

The left is now comfortable in its ideological home. But it’s a house haunted by the spirit of George McGovern.
Image; Victorious Republican Ticket Nixon/Agnew
President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew appear at the Republican election night headquarters in the Shoreham Hotel after Nixon's landslide victory over George McGovern on November 7, 1972.Bettmann Archive / Getty Images file

With the midterms mere weeks away, Democrats are already preparing to invoke the era of Richard M. Nixon and Watergate. Anticipating a "blue wave" that will retake the House in November, they have started laying out plans for impeachment proceedings — or at least serious investigations with that goal in mind.

But the Democrats’ political positions, combined with their actions during and in the wake of the confirmation hearings for now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s U.S. Supreme Court nomination, suggest a different Nixon-era touchstone: his 1972 landslide re-election.

The actions of Democrats in 1972 helped propel a Republican president originally brought into office by the closest of margins in 1968, supported by Americans who feared their way of life was under assault by potentially violent leftists.

The legitimate fears among conservatives and many others that heated up during the election of Donald Trump remain on a simmer.

Democrats now appear to be priming for a new George McGovern moment. Trump voters see the opposition undermining established political and social norms; seeming to condone potential political violence; doubling down on radical change; and offering up possible candidates even left of the liberals they’ve run in recent elections.

As Alan Greenblatt, who a year ago also broached the possibility of a "McGovern redux," argued: "In the Democrats’ 2020 maneuvering, there will likely be a lane wide open for a pragmatist among the many progressives preparing to make a run.” The Kavanaugh hearings suggest the path is now, in all likelihood, closed, and Democrats are on a single-lane highway to political perdition.

The legitimate fears among conservatives and many others that heated up during the election of Donald Trump remain on a simmer. And the Democrats’ angry demonstrations and embrace of a leftist agenda could confirm 2020 Trump voters’ 2016 concerns that the country they know is slipping away — and only Trump has the courage to stop it.

Assuming the economy continues to hum along and jobs, particularly in manufacturing, keep getting added by the hundreds of thousands, voters who worried that Trump wasn’t up to the job and reluctantly supported Hillary Clinton could feel comfortable backing the president. Indeed, Trump's approval rating has reached a new high this week, according to an NBC News/WSJ poll (although Democrats still lead when asked about Congressional preference.)

Trump’s voters seem seized by some of the same fears as the “silent majority” that backed Nixon in 1968 — particularly a sense that the country was coming apart. Concerns include political correctness, tolerance for massive illegal immigration, the dominance of international institutions and fears that free trade and the ability of corporations to easily relocate overseas are killing jobs, stifling wages and exacerbating economic inequality. These concerns are coupled with more mainstream conservative worries about escalating government control over their lives — whether by executive orders, prioritization of identity politics over religious values, or government interference in health care and other sectors of the economy.

And unlike in 1992, when Bill Clinton ran as a moderate Democrat and co-opted portions of the previously victorious GOP agenda into his own platform, Democrats have doubled down on the agenda that herded voters into Trump’s arms.

Efforts by Trump to limit illegal immigration and migration from countries where terrorism is endemic are vilified as a cold-hearted and racist. Support for nationalized single-payer health plans for all, modeled on Medicare, is pretty much required for entry into the Democratic presidential primary. Socialism, successfully kept at bay in this country for more than a century, is no longer an extreme position.

Meanwhile, the very nature of gender is being expanded, and any objection to gay marriage is scorned as bigoted. Every mass shooting is turned into a demand for gun control, which Trump backers fear will become an assault on the Second Amendment. Conservatives who acknowledge climate change but question the extent — not the fact — of man’s contribution to it are denounced as full-out “deniers.” The idea of a “guaranteed wage” for all, which sounds like something out of Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital,” is gaining currency.

For Trump supporters, the Kavanuagh hearings yielded more cause for grave concern: The possibility that the left might turn to violence to achieve its ends, and the suggestion that principles that have held the republic together since its beginning could be abandoned. The left sounded ready to ditch the notion that one is innocent until guilt is proven and accept that Kavanaugh was guilty of sexual abuse based on decades-old charges not substantiated by evidence. To endorse Kavanaugh, they were told, was to condone attacks against women.

Democrats are also increasingly talking about abolishing the Electoral College. With Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and an apparent conservative majority in place, the very legitimacy of the Supreme Court is questioned.

Trump supporters see the potential for violence suggested by the sight of protestors ramming the doors of the Supreme Court, chasing after and screaming at senators in the halls of the Capitol, dislodging a senator and his wife from a restaurant, and preventing another from riding on an elevator.

Such threats were casually dismissed. "I think that it just means,” said Judiciary Committee member Sen. Mazie Hirono, “that there are a lot of people who are very, very much motivated about what is going on.”

Yet Democrats now even question former first lady Michelle Obama’s cautionary “we go high” axiom. Former Attorney General Eric Holder quoted Obama but instead issued a call to go so low as to “kick” the opposition. Hillary Clinton says the time for civility is over.

Top Democratic prospects like Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and former Vice President Joe Biden are all running to the left — or are already ensconced there.

They’re in a place America has never really gone when electing presidents. Senator Barack Obama looked pretty far to the left, at least from the perspective of a conservative. But he did his best to sound moderate, even opposing gay marriage during his first presidential run.

That’s over. The left is now comfortable in its ideological home. But it’s a house haunted by the spirit of McGovern.