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,
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
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).