Going Ideological

McCain’s “most liberal” claim should be unpacked

The Boston Globe runs an article today entitled: “McCain calls liberals a threat to economy.” The source quote for the headline? McCain’s ideological claim, made in Cleveland, that Obama—who McCain accused of running for “redistributionist in chief”—was dangerously liberal:

“Do you want to keep [your money] and invest it in your future, or have it taken by the most liberal person to ever run for the presidency and the Democratic leaders - the most liberal, who have been running Congress for the past two years, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid?” McCain went on, to boos. “You know, my friends, this is a dangerous threesome.”

Unfortunately, the Globe’s Sasha Issenberg leaves this quote, with its “most liberal” charge, largely untouched. And that’s problematic, because the word “liberal,” like the word “socialist,” deserves context, not studied reportorial silence, particularly when a candidate’s speech largely rests on making ideological distinctions.

Issenberg does identify campaign tactics and partisan rhetoric for what they are, explaining that McCain “articulated in his most dire terms yet what has become the dominant theme of his campaign in the last two weeks,” namely the argument that Obama’s economic policies would stultify growth and serve as barriers to small business. Commenting on McCain’s argument that “the election comes down to how you want your hard-earned money spent,” and that the “choice facing Americans is stark,” Issenberg also states that the Arizona senator has had “greater difficulty sketching that choice in clear ideological terms.”

So there is some acknowledgement of McCain’s attempt to frame his argument in partisan terms—what the article calls an inauguration of “a final phase” of the campaign a week away from the election, during which McCain would, as the article elucidates, “offer himself up as a bulwark against the hazards of single-party dominance of the legislative and executive branches.”

But the account goes no further than this. McCain’s remark that Obama is “the most liberal person to ever run for the presidency” (and the implication that this is dangerous) is, if not inflammatory, then at the very least meant to galvanize. Press reports would do well to explain, at least in a sentence or two, the period-specific relativity of the descriptor “liberal.”

Is Obama as liberal, for instance, as William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president in 1896 on the populist-friendly Free Silver platform? After famously delivering at the Chicago Democratic National Convention the lines “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” (a rousing call to depart from the gold standard that was in part oppressing a debt-ridden working class), Bryan won the party nomination. Despite his loss, he helped develop in the Democratic Party what a recent All Things Considered broadcast on NPR called “the core of modern liberalism.” (As Bryan biographer Michael Kazin noted during the broadcast, “You can say in many ways Bryan was one of the most important losers in American political history.”)

Even from the irascible Jonah Goldberg, an unexpected debunker of McCain’s comments, we get the proclamation that Obama’s liberalism is “not ‘new.’” Goldberg’s argument, which quickly becomes shrill, nonetheless places Obama in a spectrum of progressive politicians, from Woodrow Wilson to FDR.

Now, for all intents and purposes, McCain doesn’t mean to squeeze these precedents into the term “liberal” when he cites Obama’s liberalism. He simply means, one week away from the election, to draw clear and simple distinctions between his economic policies and Obama’s. And the easiest way to do this is to use terms that most immediately and qualitatively distinguish between the two, with little regard for the extent to which those descriptors actually pertain to today’s campaign, or the accuracy with which they are understood. That’s why the McCain camp has grabbed onto a seven-year-old radio interview in which Obama discusses the limitations of the Warren Court in ushering in civil rights, as more proof of his so-called socialist leanings. And that’s why McCain has dubbed Obama (in a rather inane attempt at a catch phrase), “redistributionist in chief,” and the “most liberal” presidential candidate in history.

In light of this, the press should do its best to engage politically inflated terms, and deflate them, if necessary. Ideological rhetoric—even when empty—holds a lot of power. In the Globe article, Issenberg states that “McCain has not historically campaigned as a messenger of sharp philosophical distinctions.” Well, the fact that he’s doing so now merits more unpacking.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.