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The Winning Label

November 17, 2004
By Bennet G. Kelley

It is bitter irony that John Kerry's presidential campaign ended at Boston's legendary Faneuil Hall, where John F. Kennedy also ended his presidential campaign. This election, as in 1960, was an extremely close election in a time of global uncertainty featuring a Massachusetts war hero with a progressive vision. Yet two generations after Kennedy's victory, Kerry stood in the "Cradle of Liberty" to concede defeat because voters now believed this progressive vision was inconsistent with "American values."

What is troubling is that Kerry was defeated by a President whom many prominent Democrats and Republicans believe has betrayed these same values. Reagan administration veteran Clyde Prestowitz defined the Bush administration as a "radicalism of the right" that "is at odds with fundamental - and truly conservative - American values." Prestowitz is by no means a lone voice among Republicans or conservatives, as even the conservative Financial Times exclaimed that "the lunatics were running the asylum" in response to Bush's economic policies; while Reagan-Bush veterans such as James Pinkerton and Chas Freeman characterized the Bush foreign policy as "Strangelovian," fanatical and "motivated more by ideology than reasoned analysis."

It is telling that Republicans consider Bush to be a radical. Radical is a powerful word because history has taught us that radicalism only leads to catastrophe for a political movement and the people it governs. While the "R word" should not be used lightly, the plain fact is that looting the Treasury for tax giveaways to the rich year after year despite deficits that would embarrass even the worst banana republic, or abandoning sixty years of American foreign policy to invade a sovereign nation without evidence of an imminent threat, is radical.

Bush's triumph as the candidate representing "American Values" despite this record demonstrates that this election was not lost in the churches or rural towns of Red America, but at the Democratic Convention in Kerry's own backyard. Unlike the Republicans who showed no hesitation in reducing the former altar boy and war hero to a "Massachusetts liberal," the Democrats failed to use their convention to meaningfully define Bush. The message coming out of Boston should have been, "if the Republicans are freaked out about these guys, shouldn't we all be?"

For over a generation Republicans have effectively used labels to paint Democrats as outside the mainstream and, ultimately, into minority party status. Newt Gingrich even circulated a manual instructing Republican candidates to use words such as "anti- (issue): flag, family, child, jobs," "liberal," "radical," and "traitors," to define their Democratic opponents. Yet, time and time again, Democrats have failed to defend their good name and/or effectively expose the radicalism of the right.

This election was no different, as John Kerry joined a list of Democrats whom the Republicans successfully marginalized - a fate no Republican has suffered since Barry Goldwater in 1964. So despite the fact that George Bush may be the most radical Republican since Goldwater, you would never have known it listening to the Kerry campaign. Under these conditions, Republicans will win Red America every time by default.

As a result, Democrats should be careful about drawing conclusions or belittling Red Americans on the question of who represents "American Values" since this was a battle they simply failed to engage. After years of being tarred and feathered by labels, however, it should be clear that Democrats must respond in kind and define the Republicans if they hope to win this battle.

While this is no easy task for a minority party, history suggests that the Republicans may give the Democrats this opportunity. After leading the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994, Newt Gingrich soon overreached on matters such as the government shutdown and Clinton's impeachment and was forced to resign as Speaker four years later, after the party lost seats in the mid-term election. There is every indication that the Bush administration shares Gingrich's zeal and hubris and very well may repeat his mistakes.

When that time comes, Democrats must be prepared to define the Republicans by their excesses. In doing so, they may discover that labels such as the "R" word are the key to breaking the Republican lock on Washington since radicalism has never been an "American Value".

Bennet Kelley is the former National Co-Chair of the Democratic National Committee's Saxophone Club and contributing author to Big Bush Lies (RiverWood Books 2004).

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