George McGovern and Barry Goldwater disagreed about the Vietnam War, Social Security, military spending and tax policy. But they have two things in common: They both lost election landslides that shaped their parties more than most election victories do. They also share a very good idea about how Americans should conduct their campaigns.
Goldwater died 10 years ago this month, and Mr. McGovern is 85 years old. Goldwater was born when Theodore Roosevelt was president, McGovern when Warren Harding occupied the White House. They saw the Great Depression, World War II, the great American prosperity and the late 20th-century cheapening of the nation's politics. Separately they came up with the same proposal. It would do modern conservatives some good to listen to George McGovern, and it wouldn't hurt modern liberals to heed Barry Goldwater.
Former candidates' vision
Almost a half century ago, Goldwater and John F. Kennedy came up with the notion that the two men, likely opponents in the 1964 election, should travel around together, give their campaign pitches and then entertain questions. "Kennedy and I informally agreed - it seems a pipe dream in looking at some of today's negative campaigning - that we would ride the same plane or train to several stops and debate face-to-face on the same platform," Goldwater wrote in his memoir.
Then last week McGovern made a similar suggestion for the remainder of the Democratic presidential nomination campaign: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama should travel about the country together, making joint visits to Kentucky, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Montana, and McGovern's home state of South Dakota.
"During these visits, Senators Clinton and Obama should agree not to criticize each other," McGovern wrote in a piece on the op-ed page of The New York Times. "They would simply state what each would do if elected president."
Then, according to the McGovern proposal, the two would attend $50-a-head receptions held by the state parties and mingle with party members, the money going to help Democratic candidates in state and local races in the fall.
A touch of civility
Clinton won a big victory in West Virginia last week and is remaining in the race, which Obama still leads. But Clinton has a point when she says that a continuing Democratic campaign stirs interest in the campaign and brings many new voters onto the polling rolls. Adopting the McGovern proposal would add a touch of civility to a process that often lacks it and a touch of unity to a party that seldom enjoys it. "A refreshing and welcome change," McGovern says, and he is right.
But why stop there? Let's go from the McGovern plan to the Goldwater plan and apply the same notion to the general election.
Actually you might think of this also as the Kerry-McCain idea. As the two men contemplated presidential campaigns in 2000, John F. Kerry as a Democrat and John McCain as a Republican, they speculated that if each won the nomination they might put on a traveling salvation show together. "We talked about what it would be like to do this across the country," Kerry said in a telephone conversation last week. "We thought it would make for a different kind of campaign."
It still might, even with a different cast of campaigners. The McCain and Obama camps have begun to consider whether the two might create the first major change in the rhythm of a campaign since the first debates were instituted in 1960.
The model for "debates" is often the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which weren't for the presidency - the two men would run for that two years later - but for an Illinois seat in the U.S. Senate in 1858. They weren't debates at all. Seven times the two candidates appeared together in various parts of Illinois, making speeches and parrying debate thrusts in thoughtful sessions that consumed 21 hours and filled the state with what Lincoln called "thunder tones." The complete text of these encounters assembled by Harold Holzer runs 370 pages in book form. The last word went to Douglas, who won the 1858 race for the Senate but lost the rematch for the presidency in 1860: "I am told my time is up."
Allen C. Guelzo, who heads the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College, thinks the Lincoln-Douglas debates offer some superb suggestions: Get rid of moderators; there were none in Illinois in 1858. Don't hold the sessions in a television studio, but in large venues, perhaps Boston's Symphony Hall, or (to preserve the Lincoln poetry) in New York's Cooper Union; in a small area the candidates tend to be too restrained.
And no podiums. "Lincoln and Douglas didn't use them," says Mr. Guelzo. "They spoke to the people, not to each other the way they do in modern debates. Let the candidates speak for half an hour. Let's see what they think without a TelePrompTer. Lincoln and Douglas at the most had a little notebook they would pull out, holding extracts of speeches they had made or the other had made."
So we have the Goldwater plan and the McGovern plan, which together provide a reminder that you do not have to win a presidential election to have a smart idea. Nudge me one of these days to call Walter F. Mondale, who also lost in a presidential landslide. He is a thoughtful man, and I bet he has some ideas about how to cure our politics. It's been 24 years since his losing campaign, and no more decent figure ever occupied the Senate or vice presidency.
- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.