By Ian Reifowitz Remember when “liberal” was a dirty word? Democrats used to run from it faster than Marco Rubio runs from his support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. In 1988, when George Bush characterized Michael Dukakis as a liberal, the Democrat accepted his party’s nomination by replying:
This election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence. It’s not about meaningless labels; it’s about American values – old-fashioned values like accountability and responsibility and respect for the truth.
Dukakis’s statement may be more coherent than Sarah Palin’s recent stylings, but in terms of content, it’s just as empty.
Four years later, Bush the Elder similarly sought to label Bill Clinton a liberal, and Clinton rejected the term, replying: “Your plan and my plan…do not involve liberal versus conservative, left versus right, big government versus little government…That’s a load of bull we’ve been paralyzed with for too long. Your plan and my plan are about big ideas versus old ideas.” In 2004, and even in 2008, the campaigns of John Kerry and Barack Obama were, at times, less than fully enthusiastic about being called liberal, even though they didn’t reject the term to the same degree Dukakis and Clinton did.
The back and forth this week between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton shows just how much times have changed.
All day Wednesday the two campaigns traded barbs on Twitter (gathered in one place by our own Greg Dworkin) over whether or not Sec. Clinton is, in fact, a progressive. The battle continued during the CNN Town Hall in New Hampshire that evening:
SANDERS: I don’t know the context of it, but Sec. Clinton said some people call me a — paraphrasing, some people call me a moderate. And I proudly say that I am a moderate. That’s what she said.
So all I said [sic] you can’t go and say you’re a moderate on one day and be a progressive on the other day. Some of my best friends are moderates. I love moderates. But you can’t be a moderate and a progressive. They are different.
[snip] But there are other issues, Anderson, where I think she is just not progressive. I do not know any progressive who has a super PAC and takes $15 million from Wall Street. That’s just not progressive….As I mentioned earlier, the key foreign policy vote of modern American history was the war in Iraq. The progressive community was pretty united in saying don’t listen to Bush. Don’t go to war.
Secretary Clinton voted to go to war.
Sen. Sanders’ point was clear: Democrats should nominate a progressive, and he’s the only one in the race worthy of the label. Clinton disagreed:
CLINTON: And I said that I’m a progressive who likes to get things done. And I was somewhat amused today that Senator Sanders has set himself up to be the gatekeeper on who is the progressive because under the definition that was flying around on Twitter and statements by the campaign, Barack Obama would not be a progressive, Joe Biden would not be a progressive, Jeanne Shaheen would not be a progressive, even the late, great Senator Paul Wellstone would not be a progressive…I am a progressive who gets results. And I will be a progressive President who gets results.
Whomever you believe is right on this question–and the argument carried over into Thursday night’s MSNBC debate, where Sec. Clinton pointed to a number of issues on which she claimed she was more progressive than Sen. Sanders–think about the difference between the discussion in 2016 and that of 1992 or 1988. Yes, this is the primary, and the comments made by Gov. Dukakis and President Clinton were made in the general election season, when candidates typically move toward the center. Nevertheless, Hillary Clinton has staked out positions on economic issues that–while not as left as those of Bernie Sanders–are well to the left of Bill Clinton, and she has continued to tack leftward throughout the campaign. It will be impossible for her–if she wins the nomination–to reject the label of progressive.
Think about the difference between a Clinton who said “my plan…do[es] not involve liberal versus conservative” and a Clinton who embraces Paul Wellstone (Paul Wellstone!) as someone with whom she shares the label progressive. For the record, we are talking about political campaign rhetoric and public perception here. The terms liberal and progressive, for those purposes, mean the same thing: An overall position standing a good bit left of the perceived political center.
Right now, the fight for the Democratic nomination centers on a truly substantive question: How progressive should the party’s presidential nominee be? Compared to the way Democrats used to downplay or even deny their ideology, this development demonstrates that progressives are achieving success in the long-term struggle to move our party leftward–toward the place where a majority of Americans themselves stand. Whether we call it liberalism or progressivism, the American people are increasingly identifying themselves in our camp.
But make no mistake, that struggle goes beyond just the presidential race, and beyond just 2016. The advances we’ve made on this front in recent years should encourage all of us to keep on working. We must do this in every election–from president on down to the local level–year after year. We must do this outside of election season as well.
We must pressure Democrats to fight for our values–and call them out when they fail to do so. We must demand a government that acts on behalf of those who struggle and fight to make ends meet, to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones. We must demand a government that provides support for the most vulnerable, that truly enshrines in our laws and our judicial system the principle of equal rights, and which prioritizes the common good over the interests of the powerful. Only when America has that kind of government will progressives have achieved real victory.
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