Tarring Kerry as a Liberal May Not Stick

Bush and GOP believe they damage the Dem each time they hurl the L word at him. That tactic may be growing old

By Richard S. Dunham

Back in 1984, I watched in amazement at a Walter Mondale campaign event in the then-dilapidated South Beach section of Miami Beach. With hundreds of octogenarians cheering, the venerable Claude Pepper gave the same stem-winding, New Deal-vintage "Happy Days Are Here Again" speech that he had been delivering for a half-century.

While interesting as a historical flashback for a young political reporter, I can also remember that this event was so 1930s. It was Old News. The liberal Democrats who were speaking -- and applauding -- were a political anachronism. And to younger voters listening in, the Democratic Party and its nominee seemed desperately out of touch with the times.

Later that year, voters decided that it was "Morning in America," and they reelected Republican Ronald Reagan in a landslide. Mondale lost Florida and every other state, save his own, Minnesota.


  This Pepper moment came back to me as I listen to George Bush over and over again describe John Kerry as a liberal. As I've traveled around the country in recent weeks, I've heard Republican radio ads and watched TV commercials blasting Kerry as an out-of-touch, endanger-your-family, soft-on-security liberal.

In the second Presidential debate on Oct. 8 in St. Louis, Bush repeated the claim that Kerry (he once fumbled and called him Kennedy) was named by the respected National Journal as the No. 1 most liberal lawmaker in the Senate. And during the final Presidential debate on Oct. 13, Bush went on an anti-liberal riff. "There's a mainstream in American politics, and you sit right on the far left bank," Bush said. "Your record is such that Ted Kennedy, your colleague, is the conservative senator from Massachusetts."

As I listen to this chorus of "liberal, liberal, liberal," I'm wondering: Is "L" still the scarlet letter of American politics? Or are Bush and the Republicans as out of touch with mainstream America now as were Claude Pepper and his aging New Dealers in the '80s?


  To a lot of voters who have come of age since Reagan's heyday, the L word seems so, well, 1980s. Anybody who'll vote against Kerry because they're scared that he's a liberal already would have decided to vote against him for a host of more substantive reasons.

The polls bear this out. Voters believe Kerry is more liberal than they are -- but that's not a disqualifying factor. An Oct. 9-10 CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll finds that by 47% to 45%, voters believe Bush shares their values better than Kerry. But by 49% to 42%, they believe Kerry cares more about people like them.

Bush political guru Karl Rove and his team are convinced that the "liberal, liberal, liberal" chant eventually will kill Kerry with blue-collar voters in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, and West Virginia. But while it may still have resonance in the rural South -- much like Pepper's rhetoric scored with Miami retirees -- I suspect it may ring hollow in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Orlando, and Columbus.

Voters will decide on Nov. 2 whether the L word is yesterday's news.

Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington Outlook editor

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