Liberal causes face greater challenges now

November 10, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

If Bill Clinton headed a parliamentary-style government, he'd have been swept from office Tuesday. If he were a king, he'd have to slink out of town under cover of darkness.

Riding a wave of voter discontent -- much of it aimed at President Clinton -- Republicans captured both houses of Congress and now hold a majority of the nation's governorships.

Moreover, the results of Tuesday's midterm elections clearly represented more than anti-incumbent fever. While several incumbent Democrats lost or found themselves in tight races, incumbent Republicans won handily. Political analysts say it was the most triumphant day for the Grand Old Party in 40 years.

The elections also were a great day for the conservative movement. Nationwide exit polls suggest that most voters supported the avowed conservative platform of controlling government waste, cracking down on crime and cutting taxes. Two out of three voters told pollsters they perceived the profligate ways of liberal Democrats to be at the root of much of the nation's woes.

As of this writing, the Maryland gubernatorial race between Democrat Parris N. Glendening and Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey was a photo finish to be decided by absentee ballots. But when you consider that there are twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans in the state, even a tie could be rated a moral victory for conservatives and Republicans.

It was in light of Tuesday's political shellacking that I spoke with several representatives of traditionally liberal organizations yesterday. I asked them whether liberalism is dead, mortally wounded or simply very, very sick.

I found liberals downcast; pessimistic about the future but determined to be brave. And they were reluctant to accept the "liberal" tag.

"I have never found labels especially useful -- that one in particular," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland. "I prefer to speak in terms of ideas, concepts, principles. 'Liberals' today are painted with too broad a brush -- it is almost like being labeled a 'communist' in the 1950s. People will say, 'Oh, you're just a liberal,' and dismiss anything you have to say. When in fact, I believe we bring important ideas to the debate."

"You said 'we,' " I noted quickly.

Mr. Comstock-Gay conceded the point: "OK, OK. I don't like to use the term, but I suppose some people would consider me a liberal, for want of a better term."

Mr. Comstock-Gay said liberals believe in tolerance and respect for other people. Other liberals spoke in terms of an "equitable redistribution of wealth" or of a philosophy that the greatest opportunities should be opened to the greatest number of people. Many noted a problem for the movement: Liberalism means many different things to many different people.

Semantics aside, most liberals acknowledged that the mood of the majority has turned against them.

"There is no question that the country has moved to the right and that those who believe in civil rights and social justice will face a greater challenge," said Ralph Neas, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, headquartered in Washington.

Mr. Neas compared Tuesday's results to 1980 when Ronald Reagan became president and conservatives controlled the Senate.

"Fact is, over the next 12 years we were able to pass two dozen civil rights measures. There is still a strong, bipartisan consensus on civil rights despite the general shift to the right. Liberals -- if we must use the term -- will have to regroup, rededicate themselves, become very creative in fashioning bipartisan strategies."

Stella Ogata, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, took a similar tack: "Children are a nonpartisan issue and they need support from both parties." Then she added with a verbal shrug, "We are just going to continue to advocate for, and in behalf of, children -- which we've been doing for the past 20 years."

Based on my quick post-election survey yesterday, I believe we have seen the end of liberalism as a movement. But the ideals have not died. They simply will be reborn under a different banner.

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