Imagine Joe McCarthy in his present form sitting in a large, echoing room across a table from John Kerry. McCarthy leans in, narrowing his eyes. “Senator, it’s a simple question. Are you now, or have you ever been a liberal?” He spits the last word out like venom. Kerry begins to sweat, stammering something about owning a gun and going hunting. McCarthy accuses him of flip-flopping, the smug alliterative buzzword rolling off his tongue.
John Kerry almost invariably faces what seems to him and almost everyone else to be a devastating question: “Are you just another Massachusetts liberal?” As soon as he won in Iowa, and perhaps even before, Kerry and his team were preparing answers to this accusation that Bush, Rove & Co. would surely serve up on their own, or, as happens in debates or interviews, via a willing reporter.
When pressed for an answer, he always seems to reply with a painfully drawn-out “no.” In lengthy articles in Time and Vogue, and in this case Newsweek, he’s given this sort of defense: “I’ve sent people to jail for the rest of their lives. I’ve prosecuted murderers. I fought against organized crime. So if they want to label me, I’m going to answer them by showing them a toughness that does not fit a quote ‘liberal from Massachusetts.'”
When The New York Times endorsed Kerry on its editorial page, it restated the problem and what it saw as the solution. “The Bush administration will undoubtedly attempt to paint Mr. Kerry as a typical Massachusetts liberal, but his thinking defies such easy categorization … He has always worried over budget deficits … He is a gun owner and hunter … a combat veteran.”
Implicitly, then, liberals don’t prosecute murderers; they don’t fight crime, balance budgets, own guns, or fight for their country. If this indeed is the stereotype painted by Republicans, why on earth is John Kerry perpetuating it? The Democratic Party has been on the defensive against the “liberal” label since Bill Clinton realized he could only win the 1992 election by painting himself as a “New Democrat.” After 12 years of Reagan-Bush domination, Clinton made what he saw as a necessary compromise and moved to the center. He cut welfare, expanded free trade, and balanced the budget. But the compromise was about more than the issues — it was a compromise of words.
The word “liberal” comes from the Latin “liber,” which means “free.” Politically, liberalism implies such ideas as free speech, due process, a constitutional republic with democratically elected officials — and, at its core, the notion that the government ought to leave people alone unless there is a good reason not to. John Locke defines natural rights as those to “life, liberty and property,” which was of course taken up in the Declaration of Independence with our inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” he argues for an open marketplace of ideas to further human progress. James Madison, in the Federalist Papers, argues that liberty can be maintained only through a separation of powers in the government and through a separation of church and state.
If this all comes off as a patronizing history lesson, it’s only because Kerry appears to have forgotten it. Either that, or he is choosing to ignore it because he’s so scared by what happened to Michael Dukakis in 1988 when he was labeled a Massachusetts liberal. But while these notions of liberalism may seem antiquated or obvious, they are ongoing struggles. Americans have been detained by John Ashcroft’s regime without due process; President Bush’s proposed amendment to ban gay marriage surely is a product of religion’s influence on the state; and the marketplace of ideas breaks down every time someone who questions the President and his wars is called unpatriotic.
Republicans are dominating Congress and the White House politically, but they are also dominating the very language we use to discuss politics. When Kerry fights off the “liberal” label by exclaiming that he owns a gun and fought in a war, he is playing into this labeling — not avoiding it. The Republicans do deserve credit for this sleight of hand; no longer is a “liberal” one who fights for civil liberties and progressive reform. Now he is a wimp who enjoys running up deficits and dodging drafts (remind you of anyone?). Or, in the words of that anti-Dean ad run in Iowa, he drives Volvos, eats sushi and drinks lattes.
How the word “liberal” went from suggesting free society and progressive reform to latte-drinking is a phenomenon that only the best spin-masters on FOX News could explain. But surely a man who, at the age of 27, stood before the Senate to denounce the Vietnam War is capable of reclaiming a word. Senator Kerry’s unwillingness to do so thus far is not out of cowardliness or lack of principles; he has merely — as President Bush would say — misunderestimated the American public. We need, now more than ever, a leader who can make us proud to be liberal — and indeed American — again, and John Kerry is uniquely capable of doing so.
The next time someone asks Kerry if he is a Massachusetts Liberal, he should answer with a resounding “yes.” This will shock and awe Republicans of the Rove sort. If we break up this phrase, Kerry is indeed from Massachusetts, and he should answer that he is damn proud to be a liberal. Just for fun, he should throw in that we have a statue celebrating that very idea — and ideal — just outside of Manhattan.
Sophie Brill is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College.