Standing on Nothing
THE 1972 POLITICAL atmosphere reeks with the Watergate scandal, "cocktails and bologna sandwiches," ITT-Nixon fumblings, Eagleton disorders, subdued Agnewian imagery, campaign staff bickering, and an obsession with the impact of polls. In 1970, George McGovern began his campaign stressing issues, especially Vietnam; while last July President Nixon called this the most "issue-oriented" campaign of the 20th century. Yet clarity, precision, and in-depth discussion of issues has been notably absent from the campaign.
McGovern has presented several policy statements. The Wall Street tax reform message presented only a few specifics. His decisive stance on Vietnam disguises the absence of a comprehensive view of world politics. To pull out of Vietnam in 90 days may be specific, but Thailand's fate remains ambiguous.
McGovern's attempts to present specific policy statements have been hampered by his tardiness. Even before the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy's advisers had numerous polished and clear position papers ready to deliver and defend. George McGovern has advisers (including several from Harvard), but his timing is poor. Policies which should have been formulated months ago are being promised for the first week of November.
Nixon literally prefers to avoid issues, or, for that matter, public speaking. His "surrogates" are assuming the task of bringing him to the people. But what does one hear from these men and women (females who are either family members or hold the crusading title, "Consumer Affairs Adviser?") Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz accuses McGovern of lying about the U.S.-Soviet Grain Deal, and days later Spiro Agnew announces an FBI investigation on the same topic (centering around the original charges made by McGovern). John Connally talks campaign money and Democrats-for-Nixon, but nothing else. Housing and Urban Development Secretary George Romney travels to Pennsylvania and engages in political mud-slinging with Democratic Governor Milton Shapp. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird issues "white-flag" charges that explain nothing and allow him to evade intelligent discussion of rising defense costs.
ONE KNOWS THAT Nixon went to Moscow and Peking, instituted a wage and price control system, brought 506,000 Americans back from Vietnam, and proposed all sorts of legislation that Congress will not consider. But not once has Nixon or a "surrogate" presented the American voter with a substantial, precise, or inclusive policy explanation about anything.
Nixon's Labor Day speech on the "work ethic" was so incredibly moralistic that any politician could have delivered it without saying anything worth noting. But this sort of speech is in keeping with his continual failure to account for the past four years or to explain his plans for the next four.
All of this is in sad contrast to the examples of some earlier campaigns--certainly of such famous ones as the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. Those men answered questions from the audience, quizzed each other on facts, and courteously but staunchly defended their philosophies, not their bank accounts. Today, two 20th century politicians cannot or dare not present their ideas and inform America where they really stand.