Liberals? What liberals?

Posted: Jul 27, 2004 12:00 AM

 BOSTON -- The union members here seem like liberals. The feminists seem like liberals. The black and Hispanic activists seem like liberals. But appearances can be deceiving, or so the Democrats hope to convince the public at their convention this week: "Liberals? What liberals? Nobody here but war-on-terror stalwarts and cultural conservatives."

    It must be particularly galling to committed liberals that some time in the past 30 years the natural word to describe them -- "liberal" -- became a political embarrassment, so much so that Republicans gleefully hurl it as an epithet, Democrats avoid it if they can, and it is sometimes known only as "the L-word." Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham shed light on this phenomenon a few Sundays ago when he challenged "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos to call him a conservative, begged to be called a conservative, and noted the Democratic ticket would never be so happy to be called liberal.

    In a mirror image of Graham's appearance, great liberal hope Barack Obama, the young black Senate candidate from Illinois, refused to say he was a liberal on a recent Sunday show. When liberal dinosaur Ted Kennedy was recently asked if John Kerry -- who has consciously modeled his liberalism on the Kennedy family's -- is a liberal, he said he doesn't find labels useful. This will be news to all the "reactionary right-wingers" denounced by Kennedy throughout the years.

    Kerry himself says he hates labels. Well, not exactly all labels. When he was in Minnesota a few weeks ago, he declared that he represented "conservative values."

    Conservative? This positioning is partly a matter of numbers. In surveys, the percentage of people calling themselves liberal is usually 20 percent or less. The percentage calling themselves conservative is often in the high 30s. At least since the 1960s, and especially since the 1980s, when the GOP savaged Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis, the word "liberal" has connoted someone who is weak on national security and out of touch with the majority of the country on cultural issues.

    Kerry wants to avoid the mistake of Dukakis, who allowed himself to be portrayed as a Massachusetts liberal, and of Al Gore as well. Critics of Gore's 2000 campaign say that he should have associated himself more with Bill Clinton's record and let Clinton campaign for him. That wasn't the root of the problem. Gore got significantly to Clinton's left -- either substantively, rhetorically or both -- on important cultural issues such as guns, affirmative action and abortion.

    Kerry, nothing if not shrewd, realizes Gore's misfire, and won't repeat it. He not only will avoid portraying himself as a Massachusetts liberal, he probably wants to deny knowing any Massachusetts liberals. The convention will be as militaristic as the Moscow May Day parade and honor as many veterans as your local American Legion post. The word "strong" will be used so often you would think this event were being run by a party of personal trainers. There will be lots of talk of values and faith, and the party will try to project a welcoming image toward voters who don't agree with it on cultural issues.

    But if Kerry is not a liberal, then the term deserves to be retired, because no one to the right of Vermont Rep. Bernie Sanders is a liberal -- and he calls himself a socialist. Kerry's fate depends on projecting a faux non-liberalism. He is against gay marriage, but won't do anything to stop it. He thinks life begins at conception, but won't do anything to reflect that belief in policy. He likes guns, but gets an F rating from the National Rifle Association.

    For conservatives, the Boston convention is reason to take heart. It is further confirmation of the success of their intellectual and political spadework against liberalism during the past 30 years. For liberals, there is reason to take heart, too. Their self-denying candidate might win this year. The rallying cry for the faithful could be, "Vote for the liberal -- if you can find him."

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