The Democrats may yet survive their primary blood feud to capture the White House, but it doesn't follow that liberalism will recover with them. If it does, it will be a liberalism that still cannot be named as such. Even in 2008, in what shapes up as a terrible year for the Republican Party, leading Democrats are still reluctant to identify their policy proposals with the "liberal" moniker. By contrast, while the Republican Party may well be headed for a bloodbath in November, its leaders grasp to the term "conservative" as if it were a lifeline.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama has not only had his hands full trying to distance himself from his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, but also trying to obscure his identity as a political liberal - which he most assuredly is. National Journal rated him the most liberal senator in 2007.
"A lot of these old labels don't apply anymore," Obama told the New York Times recently, referring to political terms like "conservative" and "liberal." In his stump speeches during the campaign, he has frequently championed policy goals by claiming that they aren't in fact liberal: "There's nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics," he has said. "That is common sense. There's nothing liberal about wanting to make sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they come home . . . . There's nothing liberal about wanting to make sure that everybody has healthcare. We are spending more on healthcare in this country than any other advanced country, but we've got more uninsured. There's nothing liberal about saying that doesn't make sense, and we should do something smarter with our healthcare system."
In arguing that "labels don't apply anymore," Obama is making the same claim, nearly verbatim, that Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and other Democrats have made over the years, stretching back over a generation. What these candidates found out the hard way was that labels mean plenty, especially when they refer to something that people understand--like liberalism.
Americans learned over several decades what liberalism, at least modern liberalism, was all about. Contrary to some claims that conservatives, in a sinister plot, defamed the word, liberalism did a pretty good job defaming itself: from the anything-goes ethos of the 1960s to radical war protestors, from tax-and-spend government and welfare policies to lax criminal justice, pacifism abroad, and a wide-ranging contempt for the institutions and values of American life, liberals took what had been the dominant political current in American politics and made it into a pejorative term. Today, while centrist American voters may blanch at some of the Republican Party's positions, they have no wish to go back to governmental progressivism.
If they did, Obama-never one to miss a rhetorical trick--would be resurrecting the word "liberal" as change we can believe in.
Obama's evasion of the implications of "liberal" are worth noting by contrast with conservatism, a "label" that most politicians of that persuasion accept gladly, if they aren't already wrapping themselves in the mantle. Whatever the despair of the Bush years, conservatism does not come saddled with the hardened negatives that centrists and independents tend to associate with liberalism. For many, it still represents sensibility and practicality, as well as success, dating back to the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The Bush years have in fact not discredited conservatism, a point made suggestively--if, one senses, accidentally--by, of all people, Michael Dukakis.
"'What's conservative about invading Iraq?" he asked in a Washington Post story. "What's conservative about a $400 billion deficit?" Though Dukakis went on to say, shades of 1988, that "The terms have lost their meaning," his rhetorical questions underscore that even liberals don't connect the Bush administration's failures to traditional conservative principles. They criticize Bush by holding his policies up to conservative standards--and finding him lacking. What Bush has discredited is not conservatism, but the Republican Party. The number of Americans answering to that party identification has slipped markedly since Bush entered the White House.
Placed in this light, John McCain's "maverick" status might be the best chance that Republicans have. The candidate can claim, plausibly or not (depending on the issue), to be a "Reagan conservative" - still a golden phrase - while freely criticizing the Republican Party, an avocation that comes naturally to him. In doing so, he can run on ideas instead of institutional, party identification.
Contrast that with Obama or Hillary Clinton, either of whom will run under the banner of the Democratic Party - an affiliation that has increased during the Bush years - but will avoid voicing the party's governing philosophy, which is, was, and remains liberalism.
Whatever else this already historic campaign brings, one doesn't have to be a political scientist to see that there are worse fates than running away from a party, while embracing a set of ideas. And there are better fates than embracing a party, while running away from ideas.
Paul Beston is associate editor of City Journal.