[quote]George McGovern was an idiot, and that's what sank him, not his liberalism. The US was closer to a liberal consensus in 1972 than ever before or since.
That is an extremely reductive (and I would say incorrect) summarization of the '72 election. The electorate was not nearly as ready to embrace liberalism as you suggest. Yes, there was a very vocal group of activists on the left, and, due to the changes in party rules selecting delegates, they were very visible, especially at the convention.
But the '72 Democratic primaries were extremely schizophrenic, highlighting the paranoia and uncertainty in the electorate. And in times like that, the voters swing right. George Wallace, after all, received around 25% of all primary votes cast. On top of that, the old party bosses and old-style union leaders (like Daley and Meany) were pissed about losing their party. So much so that many of them made the conscious decision to sit back and let Nixon win, retake the party, purge the McGovernites, and focus on '76.
And, that said, Nixon was a brilliant campaigner in his way. He stayed out of sight mostly and let his hatchet men do the work. He also saved up a lot of his big hits to coincide with the campaign (China trip, Kissinger's 'peace is at hand' comment, etc).
McGovern made some big mistakes that cost him (Eagleton, Salinger's trip to Paris), but the pendelum was moving to the right, not the left. The Silent Majority was tired of the '60s unrest, and they were happy that Nixon was giving them peace and quiet. They wouldn't have cared if he nuked Vietnam and put all the peaceniks in concentration camps. Before the election, people thought that any Democrat could have beaten Nixon. After the election, it was shown that probably none of them could have (save a resurrected Bobby Kennedy).
The liberal consensus you mention perhaps was ripe to form in '68. By '72 it had pretty much scattered in a million directions. If you want to blame someone, blame Humphrey, not McGovern.
Some good books on the subject are Theodore White's 'The Making of the President 1972' and, actually, Hunter S. Thompson's 'Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.'
Sorry for the threadjack.