In February 1954, Dwight Eisenhower was one year into his presidency, the first by a Republican in 20 years. He said in a Lincoln Day speech to his supporters: "... be conservative, and don't be afraid to use the word."
For 20 years "conservative" had been an epithet directed at the mostly Republican politicians and businessmen who were blamed for the Great Depression, then opposed the Democrats' New Deal efforts to protect victims of ruthless special interests and laissez faire federal government.
Given the decline of the word liberal in recent years, it's time for Democrats to have a leader who will stand up and say, "be liberal, and don't be afraid to use the word."
That leader may well be Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the new Democratic leader in the House of Representatives.
She is a "San Francisco Democrat" in fact and symbol. She represents a San Francisco district, and she is a liberal. The phrase originally described only alleged softness in international affairs advocated by Demo-crats during their 1984 convention there, but has come to be burdened with accusations that the party has accepted the very liberal cultural politics of the city. Liberal Democrats quit admitting they were.
But Representative Pelosi recently reaffirmed this comment of hers on Meet the Press: "I pride myself on being a liberal, so I'm not dodging that word. I don't consider myself a moderate."
One journalist has written that when he was preparing a piece on her, her aides told him she wasn't really a liberal. But she is. It's in her genetic code as well as her ZIP code. In 1938 her father, Baltimore City Councilman (later mayor) Thomas D'Alesandro Jr., supported President Roosevelt in his attempt to defeat the anti-New Deal Democratic Sen. Millard Tydings in the party primary.
Wearing a liberal heart on one's sleeve is anathema to many of the Democrats who rally 'round the Democratic Leadership Council's banner. The DLC believes in moderates. Founded in 1985 by and still led by Al From, it prides itself on helping elect the first Democratic president in 12 years, Bill Clinton, in 1992. Clinton took "the third way," between Democratic liberalism and Republican conservatism. That is, moderation.
Representative Pelosi's immediate predecessor as House Democratic leader, Rep. Richard Gephardt, was once a DLC chairman. She has praised his leadership, but surely her role model will be one of his predecessors. That would be the leader from 1977 to 1986, Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts.
"He was an absolute, unrepentant, unreconstructed New Deal Democrat," his biographer, John A. Farrell, wrote in his 2001 Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century (Back Bay Books, 784 pages, $17.95 softbound).
In a fact-crammed 2000 history of the DLC (Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton, University Press of Kansas, 376 pages, $29.95), Kenneth Baer called for "a distinct alternative to" his party's "prevalent liberalism." And in their 2001 succinct and compelling The Emerging Democratic Majority (Scribner, 213 pages, $24), John B. Judis and Ruy Teixera predict that if Democrats make "progressive centrism" their faith (and war politics no longer dominate), the party will quickly return to political dominance in Washington.
That may be true. It may also be true, as the DLC's From wrote recently in the organization's "Blueprint": "If those who want to move the party left are successful our losses will be of historic proportion."
But I doubt it. The only thing of historic proportion recently has been the loss of the Senate to Republicans for five straight elections for the first time since 1919-1933 and the loss of the House to Republicans for five straight elections for the first time since 1919-1931 -- after the Democrats moved right.
There are 10 fewer Democratic senators today than a decade ago and 54 fewer Democratic representatives. It's what comes of telling the party's traditional base of organized labor, minorities, lower-income workers and seniors and left-of-center business and professional men and women to get in line behind the moderates.
A big reason for the decline in the number of Democratic members of Congress is that the Democratic effort to be a sort of Republican Lite has led many traditional and / or potential Democratic voters to say, "There's not a dime's worth of difference, so why vote?"
In 1994, when Republicans took over the House for the first time in 42 years, the nonpartisan Congressional Quar-terly attributed the outcome in large part to just such "Democratic apathy." And a Harvard study of voting turnout, "The Vanishing Voter" has since found that twice as many nonvoters as voters believe the two parties are alike.