Republicans Are Trying to Turn Kerry into Dukakis

Roundup: Media's Take

Kenneth S. Baer, author of Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton and a speechwriter for Al Gore; in Newsday (New York) (March 7, 2004)

Listening to Republicans crow over the past few weeks, you would have thought that the 1990s never happened.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour called the presumptive Democratic nominee a"taller, leaner version of Ted Kennedy." Pat Buchanan charged that he was a"Massachusetts liberal," and GOP strategist Greg Mueller gleefully called Sen. John Kerry a"New England Dukakis liberal."

The election and re-election of Bill Clinton, plus the near-election of Al Gore, were supposed to have put this kind of liberal-bashing to rest. Clinton was the New Democrat from Arkansas who dislodged a party mired in American politics' left bank and guided it into the mainstream. In victory, Democrats were to have learned their lesson, never again to nominate a Northeastern liberal, especially one who lived a stone's throw from the ivy-covered walls of Harvard.

Yet last week, Democrats seemed to have reverted to form, selecting Michael Dukakis' fellow Bay Stater and one-time lieutenant governor to be the party's standard-bearer this fall.

Republicans may be ecstatic, but to honestly believe that Kerry is a Dukakis throwback is to believe that Cabbage Patch Kids, acid-washed jeans and MC Hammer are on the cusp of a revival.

The Democratic Party of 2004 is not the Democratic Party of 1988 - or 1968. The party has been profoundly changed by Bill Clinton's candidacies and presidency, and this transformation is clearly reflected in the Democrats' new leader...

...By 1984, according to the National Election Studies, Americans viewed the Democratic Party as representing black militants, the women's liberation movement, civil rights leaders, welfare recipients, gays and lesbians and labor unions. On a favorability scale of zero to 100, this coalition scored an average of 45.

These are the bogeymen that Republicans like to conjure up come election time, but they are the ghosts of the Democratic Party past.

In the 1990s, Clinton and the New Democrats fashioned a post-Cold War foreign policy predicated on America's engagement with the world and the promotion of democracy abroad. As demonstrated in the Balkans, they readily used military force to further American interests and values. On the domestic front, they proved that Democrats once again could manage the economy as Clinton opened markets abroad, expanded economic opportunity and oversaw the longest period of economic growth in U.S. history.

Countering the belief that the Democrats were the party of tax-and-spend, Clinton ran a record budget surplus and cut the federal government to its smallest size since John Kennedy was in office. By ending welfare, promoting national service and putting more cops on the beat, Clinton rebalanced the party's emphasis on rights and responsibilities. On social issues, Democrats remained committed to inclusion and tolerance, and shed their aversion to faith and family.

Make no mistake: Changing a party's public philosophy is like steering an aircraft carrier. It took New Right conservatives 16 years from Barry Goldwater's defeat to Ronald Reagan's victory. And despite all Clinton did to debunk Democratic stereotypes on national security, the mishandling of the 2002 campaign and Bush's post-Sept. 11 leadership reasserted the Democratic disadvantage on this issue with a vengeance. Yet, policy and political success breeds imitation and slow but steady change.

Look at the results of this year's presidential nominating race. The candidate of the labor left (Richard Gephardt) and the candidate of the liberal left (Howard Dean) both lost decisively. The black protest candidate (Al Sharpton) barely made a dent with his own constituency, and the candidate who ran on a platform of pure early-'70s liberalism (Dennis Kucinich) won nothing outside of Maui.

Both of the two finalists in the nominating race - Kerry and John Edwards - supported the war in Iraq, backed middle-class tax cuts, offered affordable and market-oriented health-care plans, championed fiscal discipline and promoted national service on the stump. When Edwards veered left by staking out a protectionist stance on trade, he not only failed to win industrial states, but was forced to concede the nomination after being shut out on Super Tuesday.

Does that make the candidate left-standing, Kerry, a New Democrat? Not necessarily. Kerry was not at the vanguard of the New Democratic movement in the 1980s, and hailing from Massachusetts - as opposed to Georgia or Oklahoma - he didn't need to be. Like most of the pre-Clinton party, Kerry was certainly more liberal Democrat than New Democrat, yet he wasn't leading the resistance either.

Since then, like the bulk of the party, Kerry has made his peace with key New Democratic policies and is far from the McGovernik Massachusetts liberal that Republicans relish running against.

During the Clinton years, Kerry sided with the president on the two most internally divisive issues the party faced, welfare reform and trade. And during his own presidential campaign, Kerry has focused his pitch on his military experience and belief in a muscular, Kennedyesque (John, not Ted) liberal internationalism. Even in the darkest days of his candidacy, Kerry told anti-war crowds that Democrats had to be strong on defense and refused to pander to labor crowds by telling them that he could bring back lost manufacturing jobs.

Of course, Kerry has a long record in public life, and Republicans surely will pick it over to paint him as a liberal (at best) or a flip-flopper (at worst) - charges that Kerry will have to forcefully rebut. But, in the end, Kerry represents the mainstream of today's Democratic Party, and while neither he nor the party may proudly take up the New Democratic label, both have been shaped by the Clinton presidency and the New Democratic project - and are better off for it.

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