Kerry's liberalism prospers in his positions, his votes and the company he keeps

Posted: Jul 29, 2004 12:00 AM

Ever since he rose to the top of the pile of Democratic contenders for his party's presidential nomination, John Kerry has sought to "introduce" himself to the American electorate - to flesh out his political profile, to present as a dedicated, balanced, evenhanded centrist floating along in the political mainstream.

Evidently it didn't work.

A Page One July 14 Washington Post story carried the headline: "Re-introducing the Candidate: Convention's Goal is to Ensure Voters Know Kerry." Paragraph two of the ensuing story noted that the convention's theme phrase (stronger at home, respected in the world) "is designed to underscore the centrist and forward-looking image Kerry wants to present to voters."

If the introduction had succeeded, there of course would have been no need for a re-introduction. Central to the re-introduction was Kerry's ballyhooed mandate to speakers that they cool the Bush-bashing and accentuate the positive about Kerry - to be, in that marvelously meaningless word, proactive about the man.

That evidently didn't work either - much. Just about every speaker got in his (or her) digs at President Bush, direct or implied: Teddy Kennedy, Howard ("Primal Scream") Dean, fuddy-duddy Jimmy Carter, alpha Al Gore. Oddly short on Kerry positives was his mouthy wife Teresa, most recently famous for instructing a newspaperman to "shove it": At the convention she expatiated hardly at all about her husband's centrist virtues but digressed at length about her causes of the hour.

The failure to recast Kerry as a moderate goes to the difficulty of the task.

Few call themselves "liberals" anymore; still fewer want the label. The obfuscatory term of choice is "moderate." It all testifies to the overwhelming success of conservatism in the past 40 years. In the electorate generally, twice the percentage term themselves "conservative" as "liberal." So statistically, "liberal" is not a term boding much electoral success. For liberals seeking such success along with ideological preservation, the smoothie fall-back adjective is "moderate" - so inoffensively reasonable and seductive.

Even Teddy Kennedy, Mr. Chutzpah Liberal himself, knows the liberal label doesn't sell well beyond the confines of Massachusetts and a few other like-minded precincts. So he has been surrogating for Kerry on the campaign trail by insisting labels don't mean much anymore; if you must use them, he urges, please employ "liberal" as a synonym for faith and family values. That's faith and family values.

The instruction is to remain ideologically pure; deviate only linguistically. Exploit the language. Re-define - re-introduce? - in warm-and-fuzzy words and phrases: centrist, moderate, mainstream, middle-of-the-road; sensitive, caring, compassionate, proactive; fiscally conservative, socially responsible. Do whatever it takes to win, even if it means revising the rhetoric and rewriting the dictionary. The heralded keynote speaker Barack Obama dutifully intoned, for instance, that we are not liberal Americans or conservative Americans but United States of Americans all.

Yet liberalism is alive and well in some of the nation's most important opinion-making realms: Hollywood (exemplified most recently by Michael Moore's anti-Bush flick), establishment churches (the effort to mainline the deviant), the academy (the radicalization of the professoriat), and the press (perhaps more pro-Kerry now than it was pro-McGovern in 1972). Newsweek's Evan Thomas testifies that this year pro-Democratic press "bias" could "be worth maybe 15 points."

Most important: However one may describe John Kerry, liberalism prospers in him, too - in the company he keeps, the positions he takes, the votes he casts.

The disparate types who make up so much of the Democratic constituency are uttering hardly a peep, by design; even Chicago Eighter Tom Hayden, the former husband of Jane Fonda who (pre-Jane) made such a name for himself confronting the police at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, has counseled prospective demonstrators in Boston to stay out of the streets and support Kerry.

He is, after all, the man of their fondest ideological dreams, though he and just about every other Democrat are doing their best not to say so. Capitol Hill's National Journal, anything but a conservative rag, rates Kerry and running-mate John Edwards as possessing the first - that's first - and fourth most liberal voting records in the Senate. Kerry's lifetime record is more left-wing than that of mentor Teddy.

Though Kerry presents as having been on every side of practically every issue and too often is conveniently nebulous on the issues now, he supported sending troops to remove Saddam but voted against spending the money to keep them there and stabilize - democratize - Iraq. In addressing how to proceed in Iraq and more broadly the Middle East, he wants to enlist the likes of France and the U.N.

He opposes capital punishment. He was one of just a handful of Senators in 1996 to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act, subsequently signed by Bill Clinton. He wants to repeal the Bush tax cuts. He voted against the measure banning partial-birth abortion. He has been a mainstay in the liberal Senate assault against Bush nominees to the federal courts, and has stipulated that if he is elected president, his nominees to the Supreme Court will march to his ideological drum. The combined estimated cost of his key spending proposals amounts to $2 trillion over the next decade.

Upon returning from Vietnam, he poured boiling-oil from the peacenik ramparts with Jane Fonda and enlisted Teddy to attend peacenik rallies. Many of the officers with whom he served in Vietnam have much to say about him, little of it complimentary. Kerry and his backers blast Bush for having served in the National Guard during Vietnam, but remain ecstatic about Bill Clinton, who never tried to serve anywhere regarding Vietnam - except in London's streets, opposing U.S. involvement.

Kerry is running from the liberal label like a scalded rabbit; his introduction and re-introduction to the electorate scrupulously have avoided mention of it; in the opinion of Kerry and his handlers, his liberalism best remains fuzzy. Yet his voting record tells the true story, as do some of his recent statements and positions. And his driving ideology can be easily discerned, if further discerned it need be, by the company he keeps.

Howard Dean insisted early in the week that there's hardly any ideological difference - not "a dime's worth of difference"? - among those who sought the Democratic nomination, that "we're all in the same boat now." And there's always Hillary to seal the deal and make the case. Last month, at a San Francisco fundraiser, she said she and other Democrats are seeking to repeal the Bush tax cuts: "We're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good." Maybe there are some voters out there - or perhaps President Bush himself - who will seek between now and November to determine the degree to which Kerry believes that, too.