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IT IS DIFFICULT to see why so many students support Senator McGovern. Clearly his ideological stances oscillate about a point somewhere to the left of President Nixon. But the difference may be exaggerated, and outright Marxists are generally lukewarm about McGovern for just this reason. It is rather students at the leftward border of the establishment who wear McGovern buttons and, echoing the artful words of their champion, indignantly charge that the present administration is "the most immoral and corrupt" in our history. Still, vague general sentiments aside, one wonders which of his specific positions are so attractive.
McGovern has called for various domestic reforms: he would change laws on taxes, estates, corporations, amnesty, abortion, and marijuana. But properly to call a proposal for change a reform presumes several conditions. There must be a deficiency in the present situation requiring a change. The proposed change must eliminate or Finally, the change must accomplish its purpose without introducing new harms. If, for instance, someone proposed to alter the U.S. government by installing a dictator, few would agree to call this change a reform. McGovern's so-called reform proposals must be carefully examined, too.
Unfortunately, McGovern's suggestions are so indefinite and fickle that this project is impracticable. Aside from his plan to reduce defence expenditures, not one of his important proposals has survived popular criticism. His ideas on amenity, abortion, and marijuams have been hushed up. The dramatic increased in the inheritance tax, first to 100 per cent and then to 77 per cent, have been abandoned. Even his infamous welfare scheme is a casualty of the campaign trail. McGovern's waffting showed itself most clearly in the Eagleton affair, leading to quips about his 1000 per cent support of the U.S. Constitution. But behind the humor is a serious credibility problem which resists from his remarkably day-to-day shifts in policy.
Recently McGovern has talked about his own proposals less and Nixon's supposed corruption more, a prudent change in light of the polls. But the Watergate incident, the ITT case, and the grain deal (even presuming, as is commonplace nowadays, that these are as sinister as the Democrats charge) are not the stuff of a winning campaign. Nor are McGovern's charges that Nixon is our trickiest President particularly damning.
Every administration has had scandals--the recent cases of Bobby Baker, Walter Jenkins, and Billy Sol Estes come to mind. It is safe to predict that a McGovern Administration would have a few embarrassments in its wake as well. Not that scandals are morally defendable, but experience suggests that they are politically inevitable. Old-fashioned graft at least distributes its burdens more equitably and less destructively than certain majoritarian programs which are quite legal and above-board.
BUT EVENTUALLY one comes to the war in Vietnam, which grounds all of McGovern's charges of immorality. The American people have tired of the war since Nixon's less corrupt predecessor refused to disclose it eight years ago. But it is hardly clear that McGovern can claim that immediate withdrawal has support in morality. Perhaps to abandon our allies in Asia without regard for their future is not the moral course but the expedient one. Doubtless thousands of students disagree with this analysis, but to refuse it they must apply more argument to the problem rather than pious phrases to placards. Clark Kerr put it well: "what's so smart about carrying a sign?"
Of course there is a strong argument that the South Vietnamese government is not morally defensible. But supporters of the NLF notwithstanding, the argument that Thieu's regime is worse than its enemy from the north is highly questionable. Even conceding that the United States should never support such an immoral government (which policy would save money now going to totalitarian regimes in Russia and China), there are serious problems in McGovern's plans for Vietnam. After unilateral American withdrawal, it is hard to see why the North Vietnamese would have to release their prisoners of war. They might; but McGovern has not indicated what he would do if they did not.
Moreover, it is simplistic though common to confuse the end of American involvement with the end of the war. The Thieu regime controls over half of the land area of the south and the vast majority of the people. After almost a decade of training and armament, the South Vietnamese army is a real match for the north. The war will go on after the United States leaves, and it will be particularly bloody if the north gets the upper hand, as is still likely. The North Vietnamese program of deliberate killing of civilians, especially village leaders and their families and Catholics, would be stepped up to eliminate counter-revolutionary sentiment. Thus, immediate withdrawal might well lead to more deaths than a gradual program.
In fact, the McGovern candidacy is most irritating because of its moral pretensions. We have, for instance, his charge that our relatively free economy is corrupt because it has not abolished scarcity; and there are others. Most dangerous is McGovern's use of moralistic rhetoric without any clear notion of morality. To choose morality in politics as one's ultimate goal while proclaiming one's own prejudices as morality is bad enough without varying those prejudices from day to day. McGovern's every statement is couched in moral terms; those who oppose him are evil. Such extremism tends to breed a volatile situation which makes grave excesses of power possible. A McGovern Administration would put the American regime in jeopardy, a very sad prospect when we stop to ponder the likely alternatives.
The politics of righteous indignation are only slightly less frightening than two of their gruesome children, the Russian Revolution and the Nazi state. Another victory for President Nixon, whatever his faults, will be preferable.
But let us hope that in 1976 neither party will nominate a demagogue like Senator McGovern.
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