Now that the 2008 presidential campaign has narrowed to four candidates — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain and Mitt Romney — one thing is clear: The next president of the United States will be a liberal.
It may seem counterintuitive to younger people but, back in the day, liberal Republicans were relatively common, and many of them were quite powerful: Pres. Teddy Roosevelt, Vice Pres. Nelson Rockefeller, New York City Mayor John Lindsey and Michigan Gov. George Romney (father of Mitt), to name a few.
In the Reagan era there was a concerted effort to reframe the word “liberal” to give it a negative connotation — the Republicans’ sneering construct of the “liberal media” was a product of this effort that is still with us today. As a degree on the scale of political ideology, “liberal” was replaced by “moderate” — “liberal Republicans” became “moderate Republicans.” Conversely, in order to make “conservative” a purely Republican association, the media were also complicit in Republicans’ rebranding of “conservative Democrats” as “moderate Democrats.” The result today is that in the public mind, only Republicans are “conservatives,” and only Democrats are “liberals.”
In fact, branding and framing aside, “liberal,” “moderate” and “conservative” are simply degrees on the ideological scale. Dennis Kucinich is more liberal than Hillary Clinton who is more liberal than Joe Lieberman who is more liberal than McCain who is more liberal than Tom DeLay, and vice versa.
While most people on the left would not consider either McCain or Romney to be liberals, doctrinaire conservatives — who are heavily invested in maintaining “liberal” as a slur — do.
In particular, leading rightwing propagandists like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity feel about McCain the way that liberals feel about Sen. Joe Lieberman. They hate him:
John McCain has been subject to a series of withering attacks from the stars of talk radio and other prominent conservatives. Some of the criticism is warranted. McCain seems to delight in taking positions that upset conservatives, as he did at virtually every campaign stop in New Hampshire by going out of his way to talk about global warming…
McCain did not support George W. Bush’s tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 and often used left-wing class warfare arguments to voice his opposition. Rather than simply fight for conservative jurists, McCain joined the so-called Gang of 14 that sought to find compromise on judicial appointments. He led Senate opposition to Bush administration policies on detainee interrogation, practices that even administration critics acknowledge have prevented potentially catastrophic attacks. Then there was illegal immigration. And campaign finance reform.
Add them up, the critics argue, and you have John McCain, the Anti-Conservative.
Romney’s liberal-to-conservative flipflops are legendary. In 1994, in a letter to a Republican gay rights organization, “We must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern.”
When the letter was circulated in 2006, the hate wing of the GOP was not pleased:
“This is quite disturbing,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who had praised Mr. Romney as a champion of traditional values at the groupâ€™s conference in late September. “This type of information is going to create a lot of problems for Governor Romney. He is going to have a hard time overcoming this.”
In 2005, Romney rolled out a 180-degree change on his position on abortion:
When he ran for U.S. Senate in liberal-leaning Massachusetts in 1994, Romney said abortion should be “safe and legal.” As a candidate for governor in 2002, he said he would keep the state’s abortion rights laws intact and has since said that he kept that promise. But this year, as he began preparing a potential run for president, Romney said he is “in a different place” than he was when he first ran for office in 1994 and has stressed that he is “personally prolife.”
Republican voters have every right to suspect that Romney changed his stance on these issues in order to fool them into voting for him — and that were he elected, he would very likely move back to the left.
Pundits are suggesting now that McCain might pick Romney as his running mate. Word from the campaigns over recent months has it that all the GOP candidates, including McCain, have a visceral dislike for Romney, so it doesn’t seem likely, but who knows.
If so, it would be the most liberal Republican ticket in decades.