Thank you, George W. Bush, for trying to assure me that John Kerry is a liberal. Wish it were so.
I like liberals. They gave us the five-day workweek; ended child labor; invented unemployment insurance, Social Security and Medicare; and led us, despite fierce opposition from “America First” pseudo-patriots on the political right, to victory over fascism in World War II. Liberals also ended racial segregation and gave women the vote.
But when Bush used the L-word in the second presidential debate, Kerry did not defend that proud progressive tradition. Nor did I expect him to. Kerry is one of those New Democrats who rejects the “liberal” label that I find so honorable. After all, Kerry, as he bragged in the debate, voted for the atrocious 1996 welfare reform bill, which has contributed to the 4 million additional people, mostly children, pushed below the poverty line during Bush’s tenure.
However, after Bush’s attempt to tar him as a bleeding heart, I thought I had it wrong–so I checked the website of National Journal, the source cited by Bush as branding Kerry the No. 1 liberal of our time.
As is his habit on so many things, Bush had the facts wrong. The career voting record of the “Massachusetts liberal” ranks him as only the eleventh most liberal, behind current colleagues from Iowa, California, Illinois, Minnesota, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Vermont and Maryland–and his running mate is a miserable twenty-seventh.
It turns out the duo moved up in the journal’s 2003 rankings only because they were both out campaigning and, just as Republican presidential nominees have in the past, missed many Congressional votes. As the journal later explained in disclaiming the GOP’s misinterpretation of its ranking system, the 2003 rating of Kerry as the top liberal was based only on the nineteen votes he cast on economic issues.
But even that narrow selection was misinterpreted, as noted by Al From and Bruce Reed, the leaders of the Democratic Leadership Council–and thus the guardians of the party’s dominant centrist ideology. They define Kerry not as a liberal but as a Clinton-style moderate, even when looking at only his 2003 votes.
Eight of Kerry’s “liberal” votes last year dealt with cutting back Bush’s tax giveaway to the 1 percent richest Americans. Another four reflected moderate pro- environment positions, while two others should have been supported by all Americans: an extension of benefits for folks thrown out of work, many by the outsourcing abroad of decent jobs, and a challenge to the Bush assault on overtime pay.
The DLC guys further point out that Kerry’s “centrism” has been affirmed in the last decade by his votes for measures that many liberals rightly opposed, such as the 1997 balanced-budget agreement, free-trade extensions without commensurate protections for the environment and workers’ rights, and the knee-jerk 1994 law-and-order “100,000 cops” anti-crime bill.
So, once again, as with Bill Clinton, I find myself supporting a Democrat with a domestic agenda to the right of Richard Nixon. Yes, the man Arnold Schwarzenegger eulogized at the GOP convention was in favor of a guaranteed annual income for all Americans–something that can be made to sound even more socialist than liberal. Nixon’s point man on such issues was Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who as a Democratic senator from New York later blasted Clinton’s anti-welfare bill as an immoral assault on the poor.
I interviewed Nixon in 1984, long after he had been chased from office, and found him to be quite proud of his domestic agenda. How sad for the nation that his domestic policy is now considered progressive compared with Bush’s. Many excellent programs such as Social Security and Medicare that once had strong bipartisan support are now under attack by a perversely destructive President.
OK, Kerry may not be a daring liberal, but he is an enlightened moderate who would at least safeguard the gains made since Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. By contrast, the Bush Administration seems determined to return us to the nineteenth century, when corporate robber barons owned the White House and employed crude “gunboat diplomacy” to serve their greed.