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How Barack Obama Can Frame His "Liberal" Label

05/05/2008 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the measures of just how successful Republicans have been at seizing and defining the political language of our epoch is the fact that conservative has become a much coveted designation, whereas liberal is an accusation. They have not yet figured out how to weaponize progressive but no doubt they are working on it. Since the U.S. national election of 1980 right-wing pundits have relentlessly, and with great effectiveness, linked liberalism to weakness, dependency, and helplessness. It has become a label so politically profane abbreviation is required - hence, the "L-word."

Given the fact that the National Journal has bestowed Barack Obama with the "most liberal" title, he can expect Republicans to attack him with it, as if it were the equivalent of an Al Qaeda endorsement. In fact, such attacks have already begun on right wing talk radio and by GOP spokespeople in the mainstream media. It is vitally important that he not respond as Dukakis and so many other Democrats of the past have -- accept the Republican definition of the term, and then run away from it. He needs to hew to what has been a largely successful strategy of branding himself as the candidate who transcends labels and shrink-wrapped ideologies. But at the same time Obama must challenge the Republican frame on those familiar signifiers, so that what he does stand for cannot be eclipsed. To that end, I offer him the following riff to be used in an upcoming speech or debate:

To Mr. McCain, I want to point out that the words "liberal" and "conservative" are part of the obsolete language of obsolete politicians. Those labels are irrelevant to where we want to take this country. We can't go in new directions by following the map of the old politics. If we're going to change the way we govern ourselves, we have to change the way we talk about governing.

After all, conservative used to mean conserving what we cherish: our fragile environment; the purity of our food, medicines, air and water; the health and well being of our families; our global reputation as a beacon for justice, compassion, and human rights. Where has this conservatism been during the Bush-McCain years?

Conservative used to mean taking responsibility for mistakes, and making things right - not making excuses. When it came to owning up to a foreign policy blunder like the invasion and occupation of Iraq, or acknowledging the catastrophic failure to act while bodies floated down the streets of New Orleans, what did we hear from the Bush-McCain Republicans? Alibis, denials, and even praise for those whose incompetence and arrogance made those tragedies much worse. Where's the conservatism in that kind of moral cowardice?

Conservative used to mean not coddling criminals - whether that involved bringing to justice an individual mugger, locking up CEOs who flaunt the law and injure the public, or charging even presidential advisors with treason if they reveal the identity of a covert CIA agent for political gain. What happened to that sort of law-and-order conservatism during the Bush-McCain years?

Conservatism used to mean paying your way in life, not running up debt and expecting other citizens and even your own children to bail you out. But this is what Bush-McCain Republicans have done with their tax cuts for the very wealthy. What kind of conservative borrows from China so that the rich of our nation can evade their responsibilities, and some corporations can mooch off of government subsidies -- and then send the bill to the middle class and future generations?

So you see, my friends, the Bush-McCain Republicans have rendered the word "conservative" virtually meaningless. But what about "liberal," the other old-politics term you hear from Mr. McCain? Well let's think for a moment about some of the policies and programs that were called "liberal" when they were first enacted: the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, social security, unemployment insurance, public education, Medicare, national parks, the voting rights act, desegregation, even the weekend. I'd like Mr. McCain to say which of these so-called liberal traditions he plans to eliminate. Of course, he would never consider doing this because every one of these programs and policies has become an American tradition, embraced by Democrats and Republicans alike.

So, Mr. McCain's use of these obsolete labels makes the choice between us even starker; we can return to the old politics of false division or we can embrace the values that unite all Americans, and which are embodied in our movement for change. We can continue to label one another and return to the gridlock of the past, or we can work together to create the world that is possible, and that the American people want and deserve.