In the last debate between Tammy Baldwin and Tommy Thompson the other night, Tammy was asked why she wouldn't own the word "liberal." She gave an answer as predictably politically deft as it was disappointing.
The word liberal has fallen on hard times. Lyndon Johnson went to New York in 1966 to save Bobby Kennedy's senatorial run by reassuring voters that he would provide "liberal" leadership for that state. That was before the right-wing succeeded in poisoning the word so that virtually everyone who has hopes of winning any office runs away from it. We're not liberals -- we're progressives, or we don't like labels, or as Tammy explained, we don't know what it means anymore.
Her answer may have been the most honest of any. What we hear when someone says the word "liberal" depends on our orientation. Thanks to decades of Republican messaging, for many Americans liberal means elite, unpatriotic, and out of touch. It means Jane Fonda in 1968.
But for me, liberal means being open to new ideas, being quick to defend the right to free speech even when I don't like what's being said, being willing to listen to opposing view points, and wanting to set up society in a way that gives everyone who wants to work hard a chance to prosper.
One reason that the old Will Rogers joke, "I am not a member of any organized political party -- I am a Democrat," has so much resonance is that liberals tend to be harder to organize than conservatives.
That's because having a liberal frame of mind means that you are, by nature, going to give other points of view the benefit of a doubt. And if you really listen, sometimes they make sense. In that way, being a liberal is what drives me toward moderation, or at least unpredictability, in my positions. Paradoxically, the more ideologically liberal I become, the less orthodox I am.
Rock-ribbed conservatives don't have this problem. They're right. We're wrong. End of story and to whom do they make out the check?But here's the problem. Conservatives have danced a very successful two-step. They've defined what liberal means and then they call us that. Instead of owning and defending the term, we retreat from it, which just encourages conservatives to advance harder with the bludgeon in hand.
It seems to me that until we stop retreating, stand our ground, and redefine liberal so that it means something positive with most Americans again, we'll lose more then we'll win.
So, I don't fault Tammy Baldwin for saying what she said. It was, politically speaking, the right thing to do right now. She doesn't have time to rehabilitate the word. But here's what I wish the next candidate would say when he's accused of being a liberal:
Damn right I'm a liberal. Liberals built Social Security and Medicare and all that did was provide some sense of security for the generation that fought and won World War II. Conservatives would trash those programs.
Liberals support education from Head Start all the way through to graduate programs and cutting edge research. You want to push back on China? Then push back by out-competing them on math and science. You want to cure cancer? Then fund research. If you want progress, then don't disinvest in education.
Liberals have protected our environment. Do you know what the Back of the Yards in Chicago was like in 1910? You know what downtown Pittsburgh was like in 1940? Lake Erie doesn't start on fire anymore thanks to liberal policies. Do you know what Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Apostle Islands would be without protections liberals gave them? Bald eagles would be extinct if it weren't for liberals.
My mom and dad were able to buy a house, and my father went to college thanks to the GI Bill, a liberal piece of legislation. We rebuilt a peaceful and prosperous, if not perfect, modern Europe thanks to liberal principles in the Marshall Plan.
It was liberals who kept us out of a second Great Depression with the successful stimulus bill and it's liberals who are extending health care to all Americans with the Affordable Health Care Act.
On the tenth anniversary of Paul Wellstone's death, I want to quote him.
"A politics that is not sensitive to the concerns and circumstances of people's lives, a politics that does not speak to and include people, is an intellectually arrogant politics that deserves to fail."
Am I a liberal? Yes, I am.
The question, Tommy, is why the hell aren't you?