Adam Ash

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

US Diary: at last - it's good to be a liberal in the USA

Leftward, Ho? – by MARK LEIBOVICH/NY Times

THESE are balmy days on the American left — genuine, uncharacteristic sunniness unpolluted by some fluky political climate change . There is even talk of a — stutter, clear-throat, perish-thought — liberal resurgence.

Or, treading gingerly, a “liberal moment.”

“Hell, ya, this is a liberal moment,” exults Thomas Frank, author of “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” — and yes, he even calls himself a “liberal” writer, eschewing the sleeker “progressive” stage name that many lefties are preferring these days. He declares this “liberal moment” loud and proud. Until the inevitable qualifier comes.

“A potentially liberal moment,” Mr. Frank says, “assuming that liberal politicians can seize the moment and get beyond their usual plague of incompetence.”

Oh, snap. Liberal optimism, thy name is caution and caveat.

But it is optimism nonetheless, and well-founded, too, say Mr. Frank and a broad spectrum of political thinkers and leaders. And, they say, the evidence goes beyond the obvious indicators — the ascendance of Democrats in the House and Senate, President Bush’s second-term belly-flop and poll numbers showing the Democratic Party trending left and the nation’s political center trending Democratic.

The chicken-egg riddle is how much this alleged “liberal moment” bespeaks genuine momentum for the left and how much stems from anti-Bush, antiwar, anti-Republican fervor.

In other words, liberal moment or conservative slump?

Both, presumably, for reasons that could be explained in part by the “mommy party/daddy party” cliché — that is, that voters typically favor Democrats (“mommy party”) on social issues and Republicans (“daddy party”) on national security.

“At the moment, daddy seems to have messed up the war in Iraq ,” says Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review magazine, “so people are much more willing to listen to mommy, which helps Democrats.”

But beyond the time-worn parental paradigm, it’s clear that issues once largely walled off to the liberal hinterlands have suddenly gained mainstream acceptance and urgency. “There does seem to be momentum around a set of issues that have traditionally been the property of the left,” says David M. Kennedy, the Stanford University historian.

Presidential candidates, for instance, can now safely utter “universal health care” without being tarred as supporters of “socialized medicine.” Polls show increasing support for raising the minimum wage, stem-cell research, gay and lesbian civil unions, alternative-energy initiatives and increased financial aid to offset the escalating cost of college.

Republicans can no longer blockade the cause of global warming to the wild-haired left. Once derided as “Ozone Man” by the former President Bush, Al Gore is now up for a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar (while California’s non-Oscar-nominated Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger , has been hailed as an environmental action hero for introducing stringent emissions standards).

Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, posits that President Bush’s abortive attempt in 2005 to privatize the New Deal totem of Social Security helped usher in what he agrees is “a liberal moment.”

After the 2004 election, “there was reason to think we were in the midst of a conservative moment,” said Mr. Frank (no relation to Thomas Frank). He recalls that there was concern, at first, that Mr. Bush — stout from his re-election — would win the support of young voters and prevail easily on Social Security.

But the foray “flopped totally,” Mr. Frank said, and it became a “powerful affirmation of the public sector.”

A few months later, Mr. Frank says, the Terri Schiavo case repudiated what he calls “the Republican moral agenda” and became a seminal event in the dawning of a “liberal moment.”

“Republicans thought this was a great issue for them,” Mr. Frank remembers. But then, all of a sudden, he said, “people realized that ‘Hey, those guys are trying to come into my life.’ ”

A Gallup survey last month found that Democrats led Republicans by 34 percent to 31 percent in party affiliation — the largest Democratic advantage since the Clinton administration (34 percent of respondents identified themselves as independents).

By the same token, voters aged 18 to 25 are far more Democratic than previous generations, according to a 2006 survey by Pew Research. And the ratio of Democratic voters who describe themselves as “liberal Democrats” (32 percent) has risen steadily while the share of “conservative Democrats” has dropped (23 percent). Four years earlier, 27 percent of Democrats identified as conservatives, 26 percent as liberals.

The right is seen as divided, demoralized and possibly saddled with a top duo of Republican presidential candidates — John McCain and Rudy Giuliani — who could be unnervingly palatable to moderates and even liberals on certain issues (climate change and campaign finance for Mr. McCain; abortion and gay rights for Mr. Giuliani). A third, Mitt Romney , was just four years ago elected governor of a state — Massachusetts — that many Republicans regard as the political equivalent of a Superfund site.

Conservatives are quick to maintain that while these may indeed be (vegan) salad days for liberals, it’s more likely a phase than an era — and not necessarily anything that portends a blanket repudiation of conservatism. They are much quicker to blame the Republican Party — and President Bush — for their current troubles.

“Republicans basically have a shattered brand right now,” said Rep. Tom Feeney, a Republican of Florida and outspoken “movement conservative.” He mentions one poll in which voters overwhelmingly trusted Democrats over Republicans on matters of fiscal discipline, a finding he called “scary.”

Ultimately, Mr. Feeney said, any “liberal moment” will ultimately rest on the left’s ability to govern. He says the early wave of legislation passed by the new Democratic majority in the House — the so-called “six-for-’06” — dealt with easy, popular issues like supporting stem-cell research and raising the minimum wage.

“Democrats might have an edge on health care right now,” Mr. Feeney said. “But let’s see what happens when they put something forward that scares the bejeezus out of everyone.”

Mr. Feeney’s conservative confidence mirrors the inherent ambivalence of many liberals — especially when it comes to internalizing their own successes.

Even in the sweetest of times, liberals tend to be congenitally averse to walking tall, as if they’re always half-expecting to be one step away from getting decked by a falling piano.

Years of ridicule, battering and electoral defeat will do that. The liberal imprint has been trashed by generations of conservative candidates and commentators drilled in every unbecoming association (“tax and spend liberal,” “big government liberal,” “ivory tower liberal,” “limousine liberal,” “commie, hippie, purple haired, weak kneed, bleeding heart, limp-wristed, weepy eyed, take your choice liberal”).

It’s also an open-question as to whether the “liberal moment” could survive a truly “daddy party” event — like a domestic terrorist attack.

“We’re at a moment where I think the disasters of the Bush administration’s domestic and foreign policies are being appreciated,” said Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale University and author of “Before the Next Attack.”

These failures constitute what Mr. Ackerman calls “an opening” for American liberals, but hardly a triumph.

“This is a moment of relative calm,” he says. “We’ll see where it leads.”


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