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Liberal use of the L-word

Story by Chris Graham


To say that the Jerry Kilgore campaign is efforting to paint Kilgore’s Democratic Party rival Tim Kaine as a liberal would be to understate things by quite a bit.

Virginians can hardly turn on their television or radio these days without seeing or hearing the L-word in reference to Kaine, the state’s sitting lieutenant governor.

Which begs the question – so this being a liberal, hey, it must be something bad, right?

“I think Virginians know what it means to say that somebody is a liberal, and I think when they see Tim Kaine’s record, they’ll say, ‘They called that one right. He is a liberal,’ ” said Tucker Martin, a spokesman for Kilgore, the Republican Party gubernatorial nominee.

Liberal has actually been considered a dirty word politically since the 1988 presidential campaign that pitted George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis, who saw an early 15-point lead in the polls evaporate in the face of a barrage of attack ads that pushed the notion that the Democrat was a liberal out of touch with mainstream Americans.

“They associated him with the word liberal, and the word liberal with all kinds of bad things, like crime, failed economic policies, welfare queens, all sorts of things like that,” said David Green, a Hofstra University political-science professor.

Following the ’88 election, Republicans across the country began employing similar tactics to put Democratic opponents on the defensive – and Dems responded by running from the liberal label with all deliberate speed.

“The untold story of this phenomenon is the failure on the part of liberals, or whatever they choose to call themselves today, to defend the word and to defend the concepts behind the word. Which has really been the story of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement in America in the last 25 years, really, seen Ronald Reagan came onto the scene,” Green told The Augusta Free Press.

“It seems to me that most of the reaction has been a rearguard action to become sort of Republican Lite or to position themselves in ways that would be seen as nonoffensive as opposed to simply standing up and saying, ‘We’re liberal, we’re proud of it, here’s what we stand for, here’s what we’ve done for America, here’s what we will do for America,’ ” Green said.

Or to put it another way, “these kinds of attacks work, and candidates will copy something that they’ve seen work before and hope that it will work again for them,” said Mark Rozell, a political-science professor at George Mason University.

Rozell said the glut of L-word-themed ads in the Virginia gubernatorial race is not a surprise in light of recent polling showing the Kaine-Kilgore contest as being a virtual dead heat.

“This election is likely to come down to who can mobilize their base,” Rozell told the AFP. “And these kinds of ads play to a conservative voter base, no doubt about it. The goal seems to be to mobilize conservative voters, and I would think this would be quite effective.”

Unfortunately for the Kaine side, there really isn’t a word like liberal that can energize the Democrat ground forces like liberal can work for Republicans.

“In the ’80s, Democrats were effective in using labels like right-wing and extreme right-wing and radical right-wing to try to paint conservative Republicans as being from outside the mainstream. But you don’t see that approach used as much anymore, mainly because Democrats in the ’90s realized that those kind of one-note campaigns weren’t as effective as they had wanted them to be. It got to a point where every campaign was about guns and abortion, and painting the Republican candidate as being out of the mainstream in both areas,” Rozell said.

Which is why Kaine was reduced to castigating Kilgore for using the word liberal to describe him during a gubernatorial-candidates debate that was televised statewide last weekend.

“Jerry, you’ve said the word liberal over and over again as you’ve run for office. You said it against Mark Warner and me in 2001. You fought against everything that we’ve done to move the state forward to make this the best-managed state in America. Always Chicken Little, saying the word liberal. You say it tonight. You ought to get a different speechwriter and just talk facts to Virginia voters,” Kaine said during one exchange at the debate.

Martin’s response – “Grass is green, water is wet, and Tim Kaine is a liberal. Sometimes you just have to call something what it is.”

“Tim Kaine is for state money for illegal aliens, he’s for higher taxes, he has an F rating from the NRA, he opposes the death penalty. Those are liberal stands. Again, we’re just calling something what it is,” Martin said.



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