The liberal legacy
There came a moment in the past presidential campaign when someone asked John Kerry if he considered himself a liberal. That moment defined Kerry's problem and the problem facing the Democratic Party today.
His response was to back away, to mumble, to make excuses for why he really wasn't a liberal and, after all, labels weren't really so important.
Kerry let pass a huge opportunity to define the terms of the debate. Here is what he might have said:
"If by liberal you mean a belief that government must secure our freedom by protecting us from the capricious cruelties of unemployment, illness and old age, then I am a liberal.
"If by liberal you mean a belief that people must have the opportunity to work for fair compensation, then I am a liberal.
"If by liberal you mean a belief that people ought to do their share without special breaks and loopholes, then I am a liberal.
"If by liberal you mean a belief that government must be a strong enforcer of lawful behavior by our corporate citizens, then I am a liberal.
"If by liberal you mean a belief that the Constitution guarantees equal rights for all without regard to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or ethnic origin, then I am a liberal.
"If by liberal you mean a belief that government ought to take a leadership role in addressing threats to the natural world, including the climate, and in protecting our health and environment, then I am a liberal."
This is an approach to government for which neither Kerry nor anyone else need apologize. It embodies a positive view of our common purpose. It is based on a faith in our ability to work together to solve problems.
President Franklin Roosevelt was the great exponent of a pragmatic, problem-solving approach to government. When he took office, 25 percent of the American work force was unemployed. It was not because these workers were lazy. It was because the market economy had failed. He created programs reflecting his belief in the value of work and his belief that poverty caused by unemployment, illness or old age robs people of their independence.
In his time, half of the elderly lived in poverty. By providing them a modest and dependable retirement benefit, he lifted a burden from them and their families, bolstering the middle class and strengthening society as a whole.
This is the positive legacy of the liberal tradition. President Bush's assault on this legacy throws into bold relief the many ways the liberal tradition has helped build a strong nation. Government cannot replace individual enterprise and the initiative that causes people to work and save. But the world is a cruel place when government renounces its role as an arbiter of economic fairness and as a safety net against destitution.
Bush and fellow Republicans fear the United States will become like Old Europe — a welfare state burdened by high taxes and an overweening bureaucracy. It need not become that. But it need not become Brazil, a nation with a yawning chasm between the few wealthy and the many poor and with few institutions to allow people to bridge the gap. The liberal legacy that Kerry found himself too tongue-tied to defend gives people the opportunity to enjoy the freedoms that are their birthright.