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'Love Me, I'm a Liberal' | The Nation

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The Liberal Media

'Love Me, I'm a Liberal'

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Here we go again.

About the Author

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of...

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Four years ago, National Journal, using comically flawed methodology, calculated that John Kerry was the Senate's "most liberal" member. Today they've decided it's Barack Obama. What happened next was like clockwork: ABC News's The Note introduced the story as "one of those titles Obama could live without" because, well, you know... it kind of sounds like "leper." Covering a rally for the Illinois senator, an Oakland Tribune reporter quoted Republican National Committee spokesman Paul Lindsay observing, "Barack Obama claims to unite the country, but his new distinction as the 'most liberal' member of the Senate confirms that he's only uniting the extreme left-wing of the Democrat Party."

"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," Michael Kinsley sagely observed four years ago, "but that is only because every moment is such a moment." "This is basically not a liberal country," explained John Harris, then political editor of the Washington Post and now an editor of the professedly apolitical tip sheet Politico.com, in May 2005. "It's a conservative country."

Well, that's that.

Space precludes a complete recap of all the problems with the MSM's assumptions here, but let's start with the fact that National Journal rankings are nonsense. Obama is not "more liberal" than Bernie Sanders, Russ Feingold or Ted Kennedy, as any sentient individual could attest. The fact that Obama finished number sixteen three years ago, and number ten two years ago, implies that he moved sharply left during his presidential run. But the truth is, he merely missed a lot of votes. National Journal did not distinguish between important votes and silly ones, however, and so the missed votes skewed the results beyond recognition. Had the magazine used the far more respected ranking system devised by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Obama would have ranked around number eleven this year and number twenty-one in the previous Senate.

Of course, that's not going to matter come November. "Senator Kerry is rated as the most liberal member of the United States Senate, and he chose a fellow lawyer who is the fourth most liberal member of the United States Senate," George W. Bush joked four years ago. "Back in Massachusetts, that's what they call balancing the ticket." Kerry ran away from the label, telling USA Today about the "Massachusetts liberal" tag: "People know it's a lot of malarkey." So, alas, did John Edwards. Asked by ABC's Ted Koppel, "Are you a liberal?" he responded, "No. I don't believe in labels, first of all. I don't think they mean anything. I think what John Kerry and I are is mainstream America."

As I like to think I demonstrate almost to death in my about-to-be-published book, Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, if you look at issue after issue, whether economic, social or foreign-policy related, the majority position is actually the "liberal" position. One needs to add caveats when it comes to abortion and perhaps national security, but even here the conservatives cannot claim credit for anything more than scaremongering among the American majority.

But therein lies the catch. Scaremongering--as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have so convincingly demonstrated--is perhaps the only remaining area of conservative competence, thanks largely to media cowed by its transparent tactics.

While many on the left, including Hillary Clinton, prefer to let sleeping words lie and allow the right its victory over "liberal" and thereby adopt the moniker "progressive" in its stead, I think this is a mug's game. The label will be forced on Democrats regardless of their preference, and weaseling out of it will only make them look wimpish, as it did Kerry. Rather than shying away from the L-word, Democrats should embrace it proudly, while ensuring that their definition is the one that carries the day.

In an age of conservative collapse, it needn't be so difficult. Look, for instance, at Jonah "Liberal Fascism" Goldberg. Citing the "most liberal" label for Obama, he seeks to enlist Ted Sorensen in his antiliberal jihad, writing that Sorensen admitted that JFK "never identified himself as a liberal; it was only after his death that they began to claim him as one of theirs." Sorensen's memory notwithstanding, Goldberg's claim is characteristically ignorant and inaccurate. True, Kennedy's relationship to liberals and liberalism was complicated in private, but publicly he took the high road. Speaking to New York's Liberal Party in September 1960, Kennedy proclaimed, "What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label 'liberal'? If by 'liberal' they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then...we are not that kind of 'liberal.' But if by a 'liberal' they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people--their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties--someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a 'liberal' then I'm proud to say I'm a 'liberal.'"

Obama has not yet responded to the National Journal survey, but his campaign spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, has taken the smart, Kennedyesque tack. "The Democratic Party needs to nominate someone who shows a clear contrast with where Republicans are, on issues like the war in Iraq and the economy and the influence of lobbyists on Washington," she explained. "One of the reasons he's received such strong support is because he's drawn the starkest contrast on those issues."

Say it, Barack. Say it loud, and say it proud...

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