Monday, November 15, 2004

Rehabilitating the word "Liberal" - Advice from the Mayor of Madison, WI

I Am a Liberal: Rehabilitating a Word
By Mayor Dave Cieslewicz

OK, you're not going to Canada. In the days following John Kerry's loss, many of us felt like we had lost more than just an election. I know people who talked seriously about moving north of the border. In fact, only hours after Kerry's concession speech I gave an interview in which I said I felt physical pain. But I took a couple aspirin. And on Friday an F-16 flight courtesy of the 115th Fighter Wing helped me shake out the cobwebs and the recognition of the danger these guys face as they defend our nation helped put this all in perspective. We lost an election folks, but we haven't lost our country.

We've had our days of mourning. It's time to figure out what to do next. And we can't prescribe a cure until we understand the ailment. I believe the problem starts with a simple word: liberal. Since Ronald Reagan, those of us who consider ourselves liberals have stood by and allowed conservatives to define the term and then paint us with it as if it were an accusation akin to being an axe murderer. Conservatives who love to talk about personal responsibility never seem to take any of it themselves. While conservatives have run everything for the last four years and almost everything for years before that, they still accuse liberals of being the cause of everything from bad test scores to gingivitis. For being the party out of power, I had no idea we had so much of it.

But there is evidence that liberal values are not really so out of favor. Tammy Baldwin and Russ Feingold -- people who don't back down from their principles-- won the strongest majorities of their Federal careers. John Kerry-- a Massachusetts liberal with a record to prove it-- got 48% of the vote and the most conservative President in modern history had to wait until mid-day after election day to claim his "mandate." Even the gay marriage issue, in the final analysis, wasn't as divisive as we might have thought. Exit polls showed that 62% of Americans supported at least civil unions for gays and lesbians.

So, it turns out that liberals are not so out of step with America. But one of the reasons we continue to lose ground in electoral politics is that too often we run from who we are. Too many liberals, when accused of being just that, respond by calling themselves "progressives" or by launching into long discussions about the danger of labeling. Meanwhile, conservatives shout about being conservatives from the roof tops.

It wasn't always that way. The shoes used to be on the other feet. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson went up to New York and helped Bobby Kennedy get elected to the U.S. Senate by reassuring voters that Kennedy was a strong "liberal". It took people like Bill Buckley to start rehabilitating the word "conservative." Buckley didn't shrink from the word that was then as discredited as "liberal." He helped define it as something positive. Liberals are in just about the same place as Buckley and the conservatives were in the 1960's. It's not like we really have a choice. No matter how hard we try to run from it, the other guys will define the word liberal and then tar us with it. We can protest all we want, but as long as we let them define the term it will be used to beat us every time. So, it's time to stand and fight.

Now, Democrats have always been willing to embrace a bigger tent and with that comes a little natural chaos. Will Rogers said he was a member of no organized political party. He was a Democrat. There should be room in our party for conservative Democrats. I'm not calling for the same kind of rigid dogmatic purity that the Republicans have demanded on the right. But a political party needs to have a clear and unifying theme and set of principles even if all the members don't necessarily adhere to every detail. And we need to be able to draw a clear convincing contrast to the other party.

Those who point to Bill Clinton's success at co-opting Republican themes are pointing to the exception that proves the rule. Clinton won because of his enormous personal talent and charisma, but Clintonian politics didn't translate beyond his own two terms as president. It was under Clinton that Democrats lost majorities in Congress and that Republican majorities in state houses grew while more governorships fell into GOP hands. Clinton's formula, though brilliant, worked only for Clinton.

A better strategy is just to be who we are because Americans have already embraced the policies if not the label. Much of the bedrock of American domestic policy, things that we take for granted today, would not have happened if liberals hadn't fought for them. Most people like Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start, all liberal ideas. Most people like a strong public school system and a clean environment, things that liberals have always fought for. Most people like the free enterprise system but don't want it unfettered to allow things like child labor and air and water pollution. That's a liberal idea.

Here in Madison we have had liberal government for a good thirty years. And it has helped create the best business environment and the lowest unemployment in the nation. We've lost count of the number of top ten lists we've made. This is because investments in the public realm coupled with sensible regulation that protects workers and the environment are good for our quality of life -- and that's good for business. Far from being an island, Madison is a laboratory of liberal policies that work.

So the next time somebody calls you a liberal, thank them for the compliment. We shouldn't spend the next four years trying to be more like the conservatives. Given the choice between real and fake Republicans, a smart electorate is going to pick the real ones every time. If we insist on fighting the next elections on our ground - on whose policies are best for health care and jobs and education and ending the war - we will start to win again. So, keep the faith and keep your citizenship. Canada is a great place to visit, but I still want to live here.

Friends of Dave Cieslewicz
P.O. Box 2164
Madison, WI 53704

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