Do NOT run from the liberal label!

Barack Obama is starting to concern me. He seems to be running from “liberal” label.

I’ve written before about how critical I think it is that liberals and progressives rescue the term “liberal”. It’s a first step toward re-legitimizing the entire liberal worldview.

I didn’t see the debate between Obama and Hillary Clinton last night, but from a transcript, apparently this exchange took place:

WILLIAMS: We are back from Cleveland State University. We continue with our debate.

The question beginning this segment is for you, Senator Obama.

The National Journal rates your voting record as more liberal than that of Ted Kennedy.

In a general election, going up against a Republican Party, looking for converts, Republicans, independents, how can you run with a more liberal voting record than Ted Kennedy?

OBAMA: Well, first of all, let’s take a look at what the National Journal rated us on.

It turned out that Senator Clinton and I had differences on two votes. The first was on an immigration issue, where the question was whether guest workers could come here, work for two years, go back for a year, and then come back and work for another two years, which meant essentially that you were going to have illegal immigrants for a year, because they wouldn’t go back, and I thought it was bad policy.

The second — and this, I think, is telling in terms of how silly these ratings are — I supported an office of public integrity, an independent office that would be able to monitor ethics investigations in the Senate, because I thought it was important for the public to know that if there were any ethical violations in the Senate, that they weren’t being investigated by the Senators themselves, but there was somebody independent who would do it.

This is something that I’ve tried to push as part of my ethics package.

OBAMA: It was rejected. And according to the National Journal, that position is a liberal position.

Now, I don’t think that’s a liberal position. I think there are a lot of Republicans and a lot of Independents who would like to make sure that ethic investigations are not conducted by the people who are potentially being investigated. So the categories don’t make sense.

And part of the reason I think a lot of people have been puzzled, why is it that Senator Obama’s campaign, the supposed liberal, is attracting more Independent votes than any other candidate in the Democratic primary, and Republican votes as well, and then people are scratching their head? It’s because people don’t want to go back to those old categories of what’s liberal and what’s conservative.

They want to see who is making sense, who’s fighting for them, who’s going to go after the special interests, who is going to champion the issues of health care and making college affordable, and making sure that we have a foreign policy that makes sense? That’s what I’ve been doing, and that’s why, you know, the proof is in the pudding. We’ve been attracting more Independent and Republican support than anybody else, and that’s why every poll shows that right now I beat John McCain in a match-up in the general election.

Okay, I’ve heard bad things about the National Journal rankings, so there’s no problem in criticizing those. But why not just stand up to the blatant demonization of the word “liberal”? Fight the premise of the entire question instead of quibbling about details! Or how about fight the premise, and then basically attach all of those issues (universal health care, sensible foreign policy) to the word “liberal”?!

I think Obama has done a better job of deflecting this kind of before, as with the recent flap over his patriotism. Maybe his game was just off. Or maybe he decided – for whatever reason – the the “heartland” of Ohio wasn’t the place to take a stand. Or maybe more ground work needs to be done to legitimate the word “liberal” before a national contender can use the label. I can see the rationale for that argument, even if I don’t like it.

But I also want to say that I’m starting to see a worrisome pattern, if this report from MSNBC is accurate:

AUSTIN, Texas — In the shadow of the state capitol that provided the United States with one of the most conservative presidents in recent history, Obama last night railed against the charge that being “liberal” was a bad thing.

“Oh, he’s liberal,” he said. “He’s liberal. Let me tell you something. There’s nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics that is common sense. There’s nothing liberal about wanting to make sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they come home.”

Continuing on his riff: “There’s nothing liberal about wanting to make sure that everybody has healthcare, but we are spending more on healthcare in this country than any other advanced country. We got more uninsured. There’s nothing liberal about saying that doesn’t make sense, and we should so something smarter with our health care system. Don’t let them run that okie doke on you!”

Umm…huh? So, he’s definitely not liberal. I guess. Maybe I’ve just had the okie doke run on me. Sheesh. Look at this from the opposite perspective. I don’t exactly see John McCain running from the conservative label, even though his own party hates him and the conservative movement’s policies have proven disastrous. Chris Bowers at and Eric Alterman at Media Matters have also weighed in on this.

It appears we have a long way to go in creating cultural space for liberalism in our political discourse.

On a more hopeful tone for the long-term prospects of liberalism, I found this article at the Nation on transformational vs. transactional politics to be a great read.

On the Great Lakes beat

Check out this great post over at on the changing political complexion of Illinois.

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