Over at First Read, my interest was raised when I saw the following headline and story lead-in:
Obama Defends "Liberal" Label
n the shadow of the state capitol that provided the United States with one of the most conservative presidents in recent history, Obama last night railed against the charge that being "liberal" was a bad thing.
OK--that is kind of interesting. I was expecting some sort of Kennedy-esque defense of the term liberal after reading that. However, what followed seemed quite different from what the headline and story lead-in promised:
"Oh, he's liberal," he said. "He's liberal. Let me tell you something. There's nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics that is common sense. There's nothing liberal about wanting to make sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they come home."
Continuing on his riff: "There's nothing liberal about wanting to make sure that everybody has healthcare, but we are spending more on healthcare in this country than any other advanced country. We got more uninsured. There's nothing liberal about saying that doesn't make sense, and we should so something smarter with our health care system. Don't let them run that okie doke on you!"
How, exactly, is this considered defending the liberal label? I looked around for a transcript to see if there were other parts of the speech that I missed, but I was unable to find one. So, looking just at what NBC reporter Aswini Anburajan transcribed, I fail to see how this is in any way defending the "liberal" label. In fact, the transcription indicates that Obama is actually taking some of the more popular positions often associated with being "liberal" in America, and defining those positions as "common sense" instead of as "liberal." Further, in so doing, he appears to be defining himself as something other than a liberal. Overall, not only is that not defending the liberal label, but it seems to be draining the common American usage of the word liberal of many of its most positive aspects, and then distancing himself from being labeled a liberal. So, he distances himself from the term, and then makes the term seem even less appealing. How Aswini Anburajan interprets this as defending "liberal label" is beyond me.
More in the extended entry.
|From this point, a discussion about liberalism and Obama can take many turns. First, it could be argued, as I am sure many Obama supporters will argue, that Obama is taking "liberalism" or "progressivism" and making a some sort of move where the ideas behind those labels are redefined as moderate. Thus, liberalism and progressivism become mainstream. My counter to that is that no, that does not make liberalism and progressivism mainstream, it just makes being "moderate" more like being a liberal or progressive. When the good ideas behind liberalism, like universal health care, are denied from liberalism, what it really seems to do it make liberalism or progressivism some sort of fringe extreme where even universal health care isn't good enough health care. Rather than making liberalism mainstream, is denies liberals any credit for having good ideas, and pushes them further to the fringe.
Second, it could be argued that Obama actually isn't a liberal on health care, so what he is saying is technically accurate. Many pundits, most prominently Paul Krugman, have argued that Obama's plan does not cover everyone. Also, Mike Lux has pointed out that Obama is using Bush Dog Jim Cooper as a spokesperson on health care. Cooper, a conservative Democrat who took point in sinking 1994 health care proposals under Clinton, is further proof that Obama is not particularly left, liberal or progressive on health care. I am actually willing to accept this point.
Third, it could be pointed out that on matters such as health care, liberalism actually is a moderate position in this country. After all, the country is way to the left of both Obama and Clinton on health care, to the point where the nation is actually fine with "socialized medicine." If Americans have gone socialist on health care, then liberals would be to the nation's right, or at least its center, on the issue.
Fourth, some might ask if these ideological labels mean anything at all. The way terms like "liberal," "moderate," "conservative," "progressive," or "libertarian" are used in common parlance are vague and contradictory to the point of being meaningless. I am actually willing to accept that argument, to a point. I agree that when most Americans self-identify with these terms, they tend not to use them in any coherent way. However, I still think the labels are meaningful as a sign of power in American political discourse. If Americans are more willing to self describe as "conservative" instead of as "liberal" or "progressive," that is a sign that the right is still holds sway over our national political discourse. When more people become willing to self-identify with generally "left" terms like "liberal" and "progressive," it will be a sign that the left has seized the upper hand American political discourse.
Fifth, still others may argue that we should just chuck the term liberal altogether in favor of progressive, considering the great strides we have made with the latter term. I am extremely sympathetic to this position, as I have written in the past. Further, I actually never really liked the term "liberal" anyway, and started calling myself a progressive about ten years ago when I first heard other lefties starting to use the term en masse. I thought of liberals as free traders, and in the 1990's I wanted nothing to do with the term as a result.
So, there are a number of different ways to look at this speech from Obama, and his relationship to the ideological term "liberal." Overall, it is debateable as to how left-wing Obama's policies are, and I don't actually care if Obama defines himself as a liberal or not. I do wish he would defend the term "progressive" in the same manner that Hillary Clinton has often done. It is an admittedly vague term, but I also think it meshes well with Obama's message of "change" and looking to the future. Further, I do think Democrats self-identifying with lefty terms like liberal or progressive actually matter, because we need more people nationwide to do the same thing. Finally, even if you don't want to self-identify as a liberal, you should at least giving liberals credit for having good ideas like universal health care if you are using those ideas in your stump speeches. Co-opting someone else's ideas, while simultaneously distancing yourself from that person, is not very cool and demonstrates weakness of character. Sure, I will take your ideas, but I will also distance myself from you and I won't give you any credit for those ideas, either. Frankly, feels like throwing your allies under the bus, or even straight-up theft.
There is no burning need for Democrats to specifically self-identity as liberals, since progressive is a perfectly fine term and since some Democrats truly are moderates or conservatives. There is, however, a need to not distance yourself from left-wing Democrats, especially when your campaign uses them as an ATM and GOTV machine. How long do we left-wing Democrats have to be punching bags or part of a crude triangulation formula before we are at least not shunned by the very campaigns we work our asses off to support? Obama talks a good game about "unity," and so demonstration of this sort of respect should be easy for him. Perhaps he did so at some point in the speech, but I'll need a transcript in order to find out.