Is Obama the new McGovern? Certainly among all the ironies of the Democratic presidential race, one of the most striking must be this — the Democratic "elder" whose defection on Wednesday from Senator Clinton to Senator Obama is being portrayed as some kind of turning point is none other than Senator George McGovern. It was on Mr. McGovern's losing 1972 presidential campaign that both William and Hillary Clinton got their starts in presidential politics. Mr. McGovern's change of heart has helped to create the impression that Tuesday 's split decision — a win for Mr. Obama in North Carolina and a win for Mrs. Clinton in Indiana, a state that neighbors Mr. Obama's home of Illinois and that Mr. Obama had heralded as the tiebreaker — was actually a win for Mr. Obama.
The road ahead is more complicated than that. Mrs. Clinton has strong chances in West Virginia, Puerto Rico, and Kentucky, all of which have yet to vote, and she has strong support on the party committee that will determine whether to enfranchise the Democratic voters of Michigan and Florida, who supported her in the primaries in those states. The same pundits who are now urging Mrs. Clinton to quit are the ones who last week were declaring Mr. Obama irreparably harmed by his comments about small-town Americans clinging to guns and religion and by the rants of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
The McGovern ironies run deep. While Mrs. Clinton did get her start working for him and did accept his endorsement in October 2007, more recently her aides have been disparaging him and his legacy. A Robert Novak column described "Clinton insiders" as likening Mr. Obama to "a latter-day George McGovern whose career record of radical positions will prove easy prey for GOP attack dogs." Harold Ickes, a top Clinton campaign aide who was a deputy chief of staff to President Clinton, was quoted by the Daily News as defending the idea that superdelegates might hand the nomination to Mrs. Clinton, saying, "I suspect that had superdelegates been at the '72 convention they may have had a different assessment about George McGovern." Senator Clinton and her husband have, at their best, avoided the reflexive anti-war stance that characterized Mr. McGovern at his worst.
Mr. McGovern lost 49 states to Richard Nixon, winning only Massachusetts. If his endorsement of Mr. Obama turns out to be pivotal in choosing the Democratic Party's candidate 36 years later, the donkeys are in worse shape than we imagined. All Senator McCain needs to do is pick Senator Lieberman as his running mate to underscore the way in which the Democrats have regressed to the husk of the party they were left with back in 1972. After years of work to rebuild, including eight years of a Clinton presidency trying to restore America as a global force for freedom, the Democrats find themselves yet again at Mr. McGovern's mercy.