What is a liberal?

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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“It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

These words of the late Minnesota Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey have always best defined for me what it means to be a liberal Democrat. I still believe them to govern my political philosophy.

The key is belief in government not as the problem but as the needed counterpoint to over-concentrated power — to level the playing field, as progressive presidents from Teddy Roosevelt to Franklin Delano Roosevelt to John Kennedy to Bill Clinton would say, for equal opportunity, individual responsibility and social justice for the average American.

In recent months, however, some people who sincerely believe they are liberals are being quoted in the national media and on the blogosphere as if their definition of liberalism is the only one. For example, if a Democrat is on record as pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-Obamacare, pro-minimum wage, pro-labor, pro-strong environmental regulation or pro-preschool supported by taxes, if that Democrat also believes in the value of business, believes in the private sector as being the best job creator and often more efficient than government, that Democrat still risks being called a “conservative” or, to many even worse, a “centrist.”

This reminds me of something I wrote about my own personal liberal political hero in the 1960s, the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, brother of former President Kennedy. Here is what I wrote in my 2006 book, Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics Is Destroying America:

When Kennedy announced the Bedford-Stuyvesant redevelopment plan, which used Republican-style market incentives and tax breaks for business to spur jobs in the urban inner city, he was criticized by a well-known and respected Democratic socialist writer, Michael Harrington, as putting “too much trust in private business.” Kennedy’s reportedly responded: “The difference between me and [Republican conservatives] is I mean what I say.” 

… Kennedy also prayed with Cesar Chavez in the grape fields of California to win collective bargaining rights and justice for agricultural workers. … He was sometimes rough, often described as “ruthless” … but was seen by both left and right as blunt-speaking, passionate and authentic. … His followers ran the gamut, from culturally conservative blue collar workers — who became “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s — to the poorest African Americans and Hispanics in America’s underclass. The results of the May 1968 Indiana Democratic primary were a dramatic indication of this. He carried 9 of the 11 congressional districts, won 17 of the 25 rural southern counties, won more than 85 percent of the African American vote, and carried the seven [white] backlash counties that segregationist George Wallace had won in the 1964 Democratic presidential primary.

So, although RFK is remembered as a liberal for his 1968 anti-war and anti-poverty presidential campaign … he represented someone who is neither left, nor right, but both; liked and disliked by both; pro-business but also pro-regulation; religious and even moralistic about family values and faith, but tolerant of dissent and committed to the separation of Church and State. Most importantly, Robert Kennedy connected with people who wanted their problems solved.

Believe it or not, I actually read over the weekend in an Associated Press article that there are some self-described liberals who challenge President Obama’s liberal credentials because he attempted to negotiate a “grand bargain” with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) last year to try to reduce budget deficits and a $16 trillion national debt (now approaching $17 trillion, or about equal to gross domestic product).

What would Hubert Humphrey and Robert Kennedy say if they were alive today, about a government that uses credit cards every day to pay for all its programs and plans to dump all the receipts on the laps of its children and grand-children, expecting them to pay the tab?

I believe both men would regard such a government, unwilling to raise taxes and cut spending and reform entitlements to avoid passing the tab to our children, as neither moral nor liberal.

If you are a liberal, what do you think?  

Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, in which he specializes in crisis management. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life.