Peter Beinart Says Liberal Epithet Has Lost Its Sting

October 22, 2004

Peter Beinart in the New Republic argues that the liberal label is no longer effective against Democrats and concludes that it’s not working against John Kerry. Beinart writes:

Poppy used the L word effectively against Michael Dukakis in 1988, and, as late as 1994, it helped slay New York Governor Mario Cuomo, whom George Pataki dubbed “too liberal for too long.” But, by 1996, the magic had run out. Bob Dole hurled the charge at Bill Clinton to little avail. And, as Jonathan Cohn has noted (“Fade to Black,” November 13, 2000), Pataki’s consultant, Arthur Finkelstein, played the liberal card against three Democratic Senate candidates that year–Robert Torricelli in New Jersey, Paul Wellstone in Minnesota, and Jack Reed in Rhode Island. After losing all three races, Finkelstein admitted that the epithet had lost its sting.

First, I don’t know if the examples Beinart cites are that convincing. Many other factors were at work in those races, as they are in all races and therefore to conclude that the label is not a negative just because candidates against whom it was used ended up winning, does not mean it was not effective — or even if it wasn’t that it was because liberalism has ceased to be a negative.

In Bill Clinton’s case, for example, it probably wouldn’t have mattered what Bob Dole said or did. Clinton was riding a strong economy and we were enjoying relative peace. Clinton was a virtual epic hero among Democrats, having resurrected the party. Dole, bless his heart, was simply not a strong candidate. Plus, the liberal label never stuck to Clinton because he was so slick. He was clearly a liberal, but he masqueraded as a centrist New Democrat with the help and endorsement of Al From’s Democratic Leadership Council. He took and received credit for welfare reform, though he tried twice before to nix it. He was able to balance the budget by gutting our military on the spending side and enjoying enhanced revenues from growth and high tax rates on the revenue side. He convinced people he was a law and order guy with his 100,000 cops bill. For some reason, Hillary’s obvious socialistic tendencies with universal health care and otherwise, though fully embraced by Bill, never tainted him. Clinton was able to avoid the label, which is completely different from saying that liberalism is no longer a negative.

It is obviously still a strong negative, despite Beinart’s wishful thinking to the contrary, or Kerry would fess up to his own liberalism. He and his operatives know it would be the death knell of his campaign. In my latest column I discuss Kerry’s feint to traditionalism and conscious effort to conceal his liberalism. If it were no longer a pejorative, he’d wear it as a badge of honor. So I’m afraid Mr. Beinart’s theory just doesn’t hold much water.

But what is more interesting to me about Beinart’s column is his analysis of the reasons that the label, in his view, no longer works. He says:

The reason, I suspect, is race–or, more accurately, the absence of race. As Stanley Greenberg discovered in his 1985 study of Macomb County, Michigan, Reagan Democrats saw liberals as people who spent their tax dollars on welfare for minorities. Crime was another racially saturated issue, as Dukakis learned when Willie Horton became the public face of his prison furlough program in 1988. But, in 1992, Clinton famously left the campaign trail to execute Rickey Ray Rector, setting an example that would soon lead most Democrats to embrace the death penalty. That change, plus the plummeting crime rate, largely eliminated one racially tinged issue. Clinton’s decision to abolish welfare eliminated another. By 1996, as Finkelstein found out, liberalism just wasn’t that scary anymore.

Surely I’m not reading this correctly. Has Beinart insulted the dignity and decency of conservatism? Not that that should be any surprise. But is he suggesting that the liberals’ affinity for minorities (read: blacks) has always stirred up racist conservatives, but now that Democrats, through Bill Clinton, embraced the death penalty and welfare reform, there’s no longer any reason for conservatives to fear liberals because they are no longer in bed with blacks themselves? I have suggested that many liberals really do believe conservatives, by definition, are nasty, disgusting racists, but I don’t think I’ve seen it stated quite so brazenly as I’m seeing it here. I admit I could be misreading this and please tell me if I am. I’ve heard conservative columnists and pundits who work with Beinart say he’s a decent guy and intellectually honest and he may be. But if he is and he’s still saying these things, it ought to tell you a lot about how even the less-extreme liberals view the character of conservatism. Beinart asks, “Can Bush make it scary again?” — meaning “liberalism.” How would you suggest he do that Peter? How would you suggest he pander to his redneck, bigoted brethren most effectively?

To be sure Beinart talks about other reasons besides race that the liberal label seems to have lost its sting, but his focus, it seems to me, is the racism issue. Read for yourself and see if you agree.

Beinart closes his piece concluding that President Bush might have switched to the liberal epithet in the last weeks of the campaign because he “knows he has a weak hand.” I don’t think so. I think the president is merely trying to educate voters as to who Kerry really is, since Kerry won’t proudly own up to it. Don’t the voters have a right to know, Peter, that Senator Kerry is as liberal as you are? As liberals are so fond of promoting the democratic process and the voting franchise, don’t you think that paramount in that mix is an informed electorate? Can we really get there when one of the two candidates is engaged in an ongoing fraud about who he is, who he has been, what he stands for, and what he would do if elected? President Bush is just trying to enhance the processes and contribute to the voter franchise and democracy itself by helping the shy John Kerry come out of his closet and expose his liberalism.

Forget whether the “liberal” label works. It may or may not for various reasons. But liberalism itself is not popular with a strong majority of voters and to the extent the voters discover (through labeling or otherwise) that a candidate in a national election is liberal, he will suffer politically. As such, George Bush has a duty to do his part to inform the voters of Kerry’s liberalism. I wonder if Peter would deny the applicability of the label for John Kerry. Now that would be interesting.