Truth, Consequences of Kerry's 'Liberal' Label
One of Kerry's more effective defenses against the charge that he is a reflexive liberal may be the support of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, or DLC. Formed in 1985 out of concern that the party had drifted too far left, the group has rarely hesitated to criticize Democrats who it believes cleave to an outdated special-interest brand of liberalism. The DLC, which criticized former Vermont governor Howard Dean's candidacy in last winter's primaries, has been enthusiastic all year about Edwards and Kerry.
Al From, the group's founder, said the Republican accusations of liberalism "pretend that the reform movement of the 1990s" in the Democratic Party under President Bill Clinton never happened. From maintains that, by backing anti-crime measures and welfare reform over the objections of many urban liberals and by backing free-trade measures over the objections of labor unions, "Kerry was here and was an important part of the redefinition of the party."
Mark J. Penn, Clinton's pollster, maintains that the liberalism charge is still dangerous for Democrats, who he says should move aggressively to rebut the accusation. The liberal label is dynamite, he said, because for many of the 80 percent of the electorate who do not identify themselves as liberals, the word is synonymous with high taxation and naive dovishness on national security. But he said the dynamite cannot explode if most voters do not believe it is real.
"You still don't want to be perceived as 'liberal,' " he said, "any more than you want to be perceived as 'right wing.' " In this year's race, he said, Bush is carrying the greater ideological burden. Rankings such as the National Journal's do not cause problems for Kerry so long as "you don't have a real-time event that depicts him as a liberal."
Scott Stanzel, a Bush-Cheney spokesman, said the campaign does have such real-time evidence of Kerry's leanings, including his vote against an $87 billion spending measure to support military operations in Iraq. Kerry said he would have backed the spending if the administration had agreed to pay for it by rescinding some of its tax cuts for the wealthy. Kerry also is opposed to the death penalty, which most Americans support. Stanzel said Kerry has "the pattern and record of someone who is out of the mainstream."
Kerry was helped on his way to the nomination by, for the most part, avoiding ideological battles within his party. Polling showed that moderates and liberals backed Kerry as the most likely to beat Bush.
In addition, as Congress has become more polarized on partisan grounds, the whole notion of distinct ideological wings within each party has become less relevant than the daily warfare between the parties, said ADA communications director Don Kusler.
This is reflected in the group's liberalism ratings. As recently as 1980, for example, the ADA average for all Democratic House members was 58 percent, as legislators often crossed lines and backed bipartisan measures. Last year, the House Democratic ADA average was nearly 90 percent. Similar, though slightly less pronounced, trends have occurred in the Senate, also riven by nearly constant partisanship.
Kusler said this trend is one reason that comparison of Kerry's rating with Mondale's is not particularly apt.
For his part, Kusler wishes that a word that he regards as having an honorable heritage -- backing civil rights at home and robust human rights policies abroad -- will be one Democratic presidential nominees will again embrace.
Conservatives have "been working on redefining the word 'liberal' for decades, and turning it into a four-letter word," Kusler said. "We don't want to give up the word. We've been losing the fight for the definition."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Walter F. Mondale, the 1984 presidential nominee, is considered an emblematic old-style liberal.