Posted on Wed, Nov. 13, 2002 story:PUB_DESC
VIEWPOINT: Dems must stop apologizing for liberal beliefs
Jack Russell Weinstein

GRAND FORKS - There are a wide variety of reasons why the Democrats lost control of the U.S. Senate.

In analyzing specific battles, many pundits will point to the Paul Wellstone memorial service as a major tactical mistake, one that alienated the electorate at large and did more harm than good. The Republicans assaulted the event immediately, charging Wellstone's mourners with wrongly converting a memorial into a political rally, calling it the worst kind of partisanship.

This accusation is misguided. The Democrat's biggest mistake was not their partisan political celebration; it was apologizing for it the next day.

In remembering Wellstone, virtually every speaker credited the late senator with the greatest of political attributes: being consistent in word and deed. For Wellstone, belief and action could not and ought not be separated. Why then is it not both inevitable and appropriate that his memorial be an example of the unity of word and deed as well?

To have memorialized Wellstone without being political - to have done so without being boisterously liberal - would have been to not memorialize Wellstone at all. Yet, in the face of Republican criticism, the Democrats apologized, once again accepting the Republican message that a liberal must apologize for being a liberal.

Of all the Republican strategies, none have been more successful than the attack against the validity of the liberal position. For two decades, the Republican Party has asserted that liberal policies are more than disagreeable, they are absurd. Liberals themselves are declared obsolete - relics of a past that one only muses about in history books. This is, of course, how candidate Norm Coleman portrayed Wellstone's replacement, former Vice President Walter Mondale, in his successful bid for the senate.

It is appropriate that Mondale was chosen as Wellstone's replacement. His 1984 presidential bid may have been the last truly unapologetic liberal bid for the presidency.

It was the 1988 Dukakis presidential campaign that was the first to absorb this Republican assault into its core. Dukakis' unwillingness to stand behind his American Civil Liberties Union membership was the acquiescence that legitimized the Willy Horton attacks. His now famously absurd pose in an army tank and helmet was so obviously counter to his character that it caused his own followers to question his authenticity. His supporters were forced, then, not to vote for Dukakis but to vote against Bush, a standard Democratic motivation that still dominates today.

The Clinton/Gore years reinforced this illegitimacy of liberal ideals as the two Democrats happily adopted centrist positions that forced them irrevocably to the right. More so, they rejected even the discourse of liberal ideals and radical new solutions. Thus, former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders was forced to resign for suggesting alternative approaches to drugs and sexuality, and gays and lesbians in the military were forced back in the closet just as they were normalizing being out in the civilian world.

Of course, Gore's own abandonment of his connections to Clinton in 2002 divorced his campaign from his own legitimacy as well as from his impressive resume of public service. In retrospect, it becomes clear that Gore wanted distance, not just from Clinton's sexual proclivities but from Clinton's association with liberalness as well.

Despite the Republican attack, liberals have much to be proud of. The most celebrated domestic movements are liberal movements: women's suffrage, civil rights, the New Deal. The majority of Americans are pro-choice, support some form of gun control, favor public education, believe in the separation of church and state and embrace the expansion of civil rights for all. Most believe the government ought to help those in need.

People share liberal beliefs; they just don't want to be called “liberal.” This is the great GOP victory: the delegitimization of a word. Consider the moniker “Grand Old Party” itself. As conservatives often do, Republicans insist that tradition in itself imbues value on their party. We have reason to reject this Burkean legacy, but even if we didn't, no such tradition really exists. Yes, Lincoln was a Republican, but he was not a member of this Republican Party.

This election shows that with the complete abandonment of liberal self-identification, the Democrats lose the ability to communicate a message, and without a message - without a philosophy or ideology - the Democrats never can win.

If the Democratic Party wishes to put forth a real contender for the presidency in 2004, it must find a leader who is charismatic and articulate enough to reassert the legitimacy of liberal politics to the American public. Doing so will not cure all the party's ills, but it will make room for the legitimacy of the arguments that surely will follow.


Back to publications page