Loony Over Labels
By Michael Kinsley
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page B07
As all eyes turn to Boston, where the world's oldest political party meets in con- vention beginning tomorrow evening, the Democrats face both a challenge and an opportunity. They must demonstrate that they have abandoned McGovernite liberal extremism and have restored their party to the mainstream moderate tradition of Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy.
Only kidding. Fooled you, though, didn't I? It's true enough that this is a moment when the Democrats are called upon to reject extreme liberalism (whatever that might be) and to embrace moderation. But that is only because every moment is such a moment. The opinion that the Democrats need to foreswear McGovernism and prove their commitment to moderation is one of the very safest in all of punditry. It is sure to be taken out for a spin more than once during this week's Democratic convention.
Extremism versus moderation is a beloved media leitmotif at the Republican convention as well. But there's a difference, at least in tone. It is generally considered enough if the Republicans prevent their nuttier element from actually taking over the convention. The GOP is rarely threatened with oblivion if it fails to stage a public festival of contrition.
And the Republicans are under no pressure to avoid the word "conservative."
By contrast, much of the entertainment at Democratic conventions comes from watching politicians duck and parry as some journalist chases after them like a process server, trying to get them to accept the label "liberal."
It is an odd notion that the Democratic Party is about to flicker out and, like Tinker Bell, can be saved only if all the delegates chant, "We do believe in moderation. We do. We do." An especially irritating variant, usually from conservative commentators, holds piously that the Democratic Party must save itself because two parties are essential to democracy or because competition is good for the Republicans.
These themes have reverberated around Democratic conventions since the first post-McGovernite election year of 1976. By now the word "McGovernite," never exactly filled with schismatic drama and romance, must be about as meaningful to the average voter as "Shachtmanite" or "Albigensian." George McGovern, children, was a senator from South Dakota (a region of the upper west side of Manhattan in the geographical mythology of Democratic Party critics) and the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972. He was, and is, a left-liberal. The Republican offering that year was Richard Nixon (with Spiro Agnew for dessert), but it is the Democrats who have been apologizing for their choice ever since.
You would not know from the Democrats' three decades of defensiveness about themselves and the label liberal that the Democratic candidate got more votes than the Republican one in each of the past three presidential elections. Another way of putting this is that the candidate the world labeled a liberal, whether he admitted it or not, got more votes than the candidate who proudly labeled himself a conservative.
Going back to 1976, when self-flagellation first became mandatory for liberals and Democrats, the Democratic presidential candidate got more votes in four out of seven elections. Going back to 1960, the record is six out of 11.
Even if you start counting in 1980 -- the first Reagan election, and a turning point in the history of the universe to many Republicans -- the result is a tie, 3-3.
That ungainly formulation "got more votes" is necessary, obviously, because in 2000 the candidate who got more votes didn't win. Or he did win, but was wrongfully denied the prize. Take your pick.
Republicans and most neutral commentators are very, very tired of this sore-loser stuff about how Al Gore won the election in 2000. But even if you put this entire controversy aside (and I see no reason why you should), there is no disputing the fact that the Democratic candidate in 2000 got more votes. He got more than the Republican, even though that year's third-party pest -- another recent but treasured election-year tradition -- took more votes from the Democrat.
Look for very little mention of the whole 2000 imbroglio this week in Boston. This is partly because that year's Democratic nominee, Al Gore, seems to be undergoing some kind of metamorphosis and is not a popular figure at the moment. It is also because suggesting that the Bush presidency may be illegitimate is itself considered illegitimate. Although Democrats sincerely believe that election was stolen from them, they have been cowed by the successful Republican campaign to make any reference to 2000 seem like bad form.
However, it is one thing to shut up about cheating. It is another to pretend that George W. Bush is president today because he got the most votes. And yet the Democrats-must-abandon-extremism story line is so ingrained that professional commentators and freelance scolds often give 2000 the same will-they-never-learn treatment they use to explain the Democratic losses of 1980 and 1988.
Sure, it might have made the crucial difference if Gore had been just a bit more moderate in this or that, or if voters watching the Democratic convention had heard yet another heartfelt assurance that the party had learned its lesson and had written "I will not be McGovernite" on the board a thousand more times. But the party that gets the most votes is not "out of the mainstream," whether getting the most votes is enough to win the election or not.
The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company