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Victories Without Victors

At the end of a century of liberal triumphs, nobody wants to take the credit. A musing on the curious transformation of the term "liberal" -- from a description to an accusation

by Jack Beatty

In one of his presidential debates with Bill Clinton, Bob Dole called Clinton a "liberal" -- to which Clinton replied, "That's an old charge." A charge? How did being "liberal" come to be the kiss of death in American politics?

It is not as if the great policy failures of recent years have been liberal failures. The ballooning budget deficits of the 1980s stemmed from the combination of a massive defense build-up and tax cuts during the Reagan Administration. The S & L crisis resulted from the promiscuous application of a conservative theory: deregulation. Watergate? Iran-Contra? They had nothing to do with liberalism.

Even the widely derided Clinton health-care initiative was not the failure of tumescent liberalism that conservatives have claimed. The bureaucratic furbelows of Clintoncare -- the multiple boards and authorities lampooned in the damningly complicated chart devised by Senator Arlen Spector (R-Pa.) -- were provoked by fear of "L-word" accusations. The liberal solution to the health-care crisis was a single-payer system along Canadian lines. Even though there was wide agreement that such a system would provide universal coverage while nonetheless being less costly than what we've currently got, the Clintons ruled it out from the start -- they didn't want their plan attacked as "liberal" or, worse, "socialist." The boards and authorities were ways of squaring a market-driven health-care system of private payers with universal coverage, in which Clinton and his aides could say that they had preserved "the market." There they are -- individuals needing health-care -- right at the bottom of the chart.

While liberalism cannot credibly be implicated in recent government failures, it can take credit for still-popular government programs -- the popularity of which can be gauged by the public's reactions to cuts proposed by the Republicans. By many accounts, Bill Clinton's recovery from political irrelevance after the 1994 elections began when the Republicans proposed sweeping cuts in Medicare, the health-insurance program for seniors passed by the last liberal President, Lyndon Johnson. In vain did Newt Gingrich protest that they weren't cuts but merely "reductions" in Medicare's rate of growth. The GOP had touched a liberal program with a vast and vocal constituency, and the public's reaction was decisive in Bill Clinton's reelection.

No more successful was the GOP attack on another popular governmental initiative that is strongly, though not exclusively, liberal in inspiration: environmental protection. A front-page New York Times story about how GOP lawmakers had invited lobbyists for corporate polluters to draft so-called "reform" legislation on the environment was the stuff of public outrage.

To be sure, liberalism has been seriously hurt by its connection with the civil-rights movement. White suburbanites in the South abandoned the Democratic party when the Democrats shook off their segregationist past to champion civil rights for black Americans. The key to southern politics ever since has been to label one's opponent a "liberal" and then declare victory. Electorally significant majorities of white southerners have yet to overcome the racial politics of their past. Nor have many white northerners, for whom "liberal" is a code word denoting overmuch sympathy with minorities. That the civil-rights legislation of the 1960s was a moral triumph for liberalism -- a moment of great national pride for all but racist Americans -- has been forgotten. Affirmative action? It was originally of Richard Nixon's devising, an attempt to punish unions for their support of Hubert Humphrey in 1968. But liberals are identified with affirmative action, and they must -- and should -- defend it. Busing? Welfare? With some justice they are seen as monuments to liberal social engineering.

Liberalism has an eminently defensible record, but politicians fear to defend it -- which means that even if conservative politicians are defeated, conservatism, which has no ideological competition, is vindicated in election after election. This is bad for conservatism, which has succumbed to the intellectual somnolence of uncontested dogma. It is bad for liberalism, which must resort to stealth to compete for the public's favor. And it is bad for the country. A politics of foreclosed alternatives is unworthy of a free people.

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