Democrats Have Chance to Erase ‘Liberal’ Stigma

Posted October 20, 2004 at 3:37pm

Shhhh. The “L” word is back, coming at you in headlines and last-minute political advertising across the country. Back by popular demand as President Bush continues the struggle to pull ahead of a strong and credible challenger, the Bush-Cheney campaign is now going for broke. It is trying to stick the liberal label on Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) lapel. [IMGCAP(1)]

Unlike elections in the 1980s, when liberal Democrats often shied away from defending themselves, this election is different. Progressive Democratic organizations and their allies have retooled their operations and helped enlarge the electorate, making it likely that they’ll be able to turn out millions of new voters willing to support candidates with “liberal” views on issues ranging from war and peace to the bread-and-butter concerns of average Americans.

Once again, Republicans will be shown to be out of touch with voters who believe we can do better in keeping our country safe and secure while tending to problems at home. It is clear that Bush and leading Republican Senatorial and House candidates must close their campaign by reaching for the liberal hot button. It’s a perfect political bait and switch, especially when those in control of government have failed to pass a budget, most spending bills, and highway and energy legislation. These conservatives are the same people who must, in the dark of night next month, raise the debt-ceiling level for the third straight year in a row. Against that record, it’s hard to see what’s so wrong with being called a liberal.

I do not know if trying to tar Kerry with the liberal label will provide GOPers with the weapon they need to curtail the turnout of millions of disaffected voters who have grown increasingly weary of the “politics of emptiness.” But, if $100 million worth of negative, scurillous attack ads did not diminish Kerry’s appeal to voters, perhaps they think calling him a die-hard, bleeding-heart liberal will do the trick. I don’t think so.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but that has never been good enough for Republicans. They hate liberals more than they hate the terrorists we all loathe. The GOP has invested most of its political capital in demonizing liberalism, utilizing a thousand smears to discredit opponents.

For Republicans, the liberal label is fair game. Why bother with the slanderous labeling of Kerry and other Democrats as cowards, liars, hypocrites, elitist, permissive, godless, gutless and unpatriotic when you can just shout “liberal” and hope all those points get across? One of Bush-Cheney’s most recent ads, titled “Risk,” brings it home to voters. “John Kerry and his liberal allies. … [A]re they a risk we can afford?” Scary stuff.

The message is clear in this advertisement as it has become clearer in the closing days of the election while listening to the president, vice president and their conservative allies: Call Democratic opponents liberal, assuming Americans find the label undesirable. But that will succeed only if Democrats allow it to. The reason so many Americans no longer identify with the term liberal is because they have forgotten how to define their core principles. This election will resolve that conundrum.

I am proud to be an independent-thinking, liberal Democrat. I am proud of my liberal parents who taught their children the values of fairness, honesty, responsibility, equality, opportunity and freedom for all. They also taught us that good Americans fight, defend and make sacrifices for their country, as well as their community. As a fundamental spiritual principle, we were taught to give back and to help others along the way. I cannot share the values inherent in today’s conservative movement where one group is pitted against another for political gain.

Throughout the 1980s, we liberals failed to stand up for our beliefs and to clarify our core principles. In the face of ferocious and destructive attacks on the character of our candidates, we fought back with reams of facts and policy papers. Meanwhile, the Republican Party morphed into a gigantic political machine usurping religious, cultural, economic and social conservatives under the cloak of political legitimacy. In just a few days, we will meet them in precincts across America. This political battle is critical to the future of our country and to liberals everywhere.

A new friend I met on the campaign trail recently e-mailed me, “liberals are coming out of linguistic retreat.” I hope so. Our values and core principles are at stake this Election Day.

Here’s what I know to be true. Most Americans still believe that a breadwinner needs to earn a living wage and that children living in the richest nation on the planet should not suffer from malnutrition. The American people still agree with us when we say discrimination is wrong, and that the little guy should not be walked all over by the big guy.

I just hope enough Democrats who have re-invented themselves personally as “New Democrats, moderate Democrats, mainstream Democrats and progressive Democrats” have enough fight in them to stand up for Kerry and Edwards and to help them take on and defeat this extreme form of right-wing conservatism on Election Day.

Otherwise, the right-wingers may get the last laugh on how we are defined in this new century.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.