No, this isn’t about Vietnam.
For a generation, up until about 2005, Democrats were completely cowed by being seen as soft on defense as McGovern had in 1972. Democrats saw echoes of this in the 1980, 1984, 2002, and 2004 elections. After that much time, the issue became completely stripped of its context and people had forgotten that for almost the entire history of the two parties, the Democrats had been the war party.
A book could be written on how overly simplistic this is, how going with the GOP framing made it worse by reinforcing weak with weak, howe McGovern’s time represented a permanent fracture of the New Deal coalition and a stupid attempt to build a party on college campus ideas and the constituency of people who don’t or can’t vote and while their abandonment of labor and the subsequent Carter/Volcker-Reagan/Greenspan deregulation and deflation is why our economy sucks today in 2012.
But the party is starting to draw the same kind of lessons from the best politician in their party since LBJ: Bill Clinton. Except instead of rushing to do the opposite of what Clinton did, they are rushing to ape it or perfect it.
Obama’s presidency has largely been defined by doing things Clinton couldn’t do, like health care, or trying to do things he did do, like win government shutdown battles. And the mantra of Clinton’s 1992 election, “It’s the economy, stupid” and Clinton’s warning not to fuck with the NRA because it cost him the 1994 election have both become so embedded in the CW that it’s difficult to argue. There’s even a West Wing episode about this!
Did Clinton win because the economy sucked in 1992? He won because he made that a winning issue, but Ross Perot was a huge factor, probably one that we will never know for certain whether he cost the Republicans the election—since there isn’t enough state-by-state data. Did he lose the 1994 election because of the NRA?
If if Clinton is right about both of those elections, it doesn’t mean that this is going to be the case forever. Obama is going to win this election despite the economy and, ironically given the above, if the campaign gets into foreign policy matters more than just Romney’s failures in London, he will win by an even further margin.
As for the NRA—all of the politicians believe that they cannot challenge them. And a mass shooting may not be the way into this issue. But crime is. If the 2014 election is about, say, a crime bill (again a la Clinton) that includes more police and a weapons ban, well, I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of that, either.
McGovern’s idealism killed labor. Clinton’s pragmatism was great politics but only held back the Republican tide policy-wise.