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Dems Haunted by Revived Stereotypes

Dems Haunted by Revived Stereotypes

By David Paul Kuhn - February 4, 2010

Election Day 1988 was only days away. Ronald Reagan was headlining a rally in Nevada. He said the options were the same as "when I stood before you." Reagan framed the Democratic "choice" as one for "liberal policies of tax and spend, economic stagnation, international weakness, accommodation, and always, always blame America first."

Reagan-era framing is regaining its relevance. Fair or not, liberalism's worst stereotypes have returned from the dead to haunt Democrats. "Tax and spend liberal," it's back with the charge of being soft on security threats – a claim that dogged Democrats from debates over crime to the Soviets to terrorism.

Democrats branding deteriorated across the board from November 2008 to the close of 2009, according to the McClatchy-Ipsos poll. Democrats' 17-percentage point advantage on taxes became a 2-point GOP advantage. Democrats' 30-point advantage on the deficit became a 7-point GOP advantage. Democrats' 9-point advantage on protecting the public against terrorism became a 7-point GOP advantage. The numbers were a light on Barack Obama's new political terrain, a landscape eerily reminiscent to liberals of the bad old days.

That December Republican Scott Brown was debating Democrat Martha Coakley. The backdrop was a state so liberal – Gallup finds second largest share of all states – that the term "Massachusetts liberal" became a slander by 1988. And yet here was Brown channeling Reagan's mantra: military strength as a "a force for good in the world.'' Brown began framing Democrats as placing terrorists' rights above public safety.

The Christmas Day bombing attempt soon followed. In subsequent weeks, Brown argued that water-boarding was not torture. Rudy Giuliani, the hard on crime and hawkish former mayor, was tellingly brought in for the last stretch. After the election, Brown's top strategists told reporters that the terrorism issue worked most to their favor.

It was the revival of the security pejorative that troubled liberalism since the Sixties: that Democrats supposedly cared too much for predator and too little for prey. Richard Nixon's law and order strategy echoed distantly.

In reality, Brown's upset was trail-blazed by some combination of the economy, terrorism, health care and general dissatisfaction with Democrats. Election Day polling found that the economy and health care were the issues most on voters' minds. Yet on these issues Brown also took up traditional GOP tactics.

One Brown television advertisement noted that Coakley had backed some tax hikes and supported "massive new spending." It was the "tax and spend liberal" line without the line.

Brown's stance against health care reform, like the GOP nationally, was framed around the Reagan-era argument that electing a Republican would at least stop Democrats from making big government bigger. The public was receiving health care reform as more burden than benefit. It was the political costs of the Great Society all over again.

Brown's strategy would have had little resonance in 2006 and 2008. By the second term of George W. Bush, polling began to capture a Democratic Party closing the national security gap, closing the economic gap (even on taxes). Once lethal liberal stereotypes became dull anachronisms.

By the second half of 2009, Obama's Democrats were showing new vulnerability to the Nixon-Reagan era playbook. Gallup, similar to the McClatchy poll, found that by September of last year the public again believed Republicans were more capable of "protecting the country" from terrorism and military threats.

A January AP-GfK poll found that 59 percent of Americans expected their taxes to still rise "a lot" or "a little" under the Obama administration. One year earlier, only 35 percent said the same. The portion of adults who believed their taxes would rise "a lot" had also doubled in that period, from 17 to 33 percent.

It's not that the old political field is again Obama's America. It's rather that the political left gained ground in recent years on taxes and terrorism. That gained ground is now steadily eroding. And the literal stereotypes themselves are increasingly sticking to the public debate.

In March 2009, 32 percent said Obama was an "old style tax-and-spend Democrat" in the ABC News/Washington Post poll. By July, 43 percent believed the same. The question has not been asked since. But it's a reasonable guess, amid lost ground on related issues, that more adults would likely apply the term to Obama today. Then there is the return of "socialist" as a rhetorical dodge ball, evoking mid-twentieth century framing wars.

Obama appears to realize it now. His proposals over the past month – from tax cuts as the means to stimulate job growth to a discretionary budget freeze for all but security spending – betray a White House increasingly forced to refute the liberal stereotypes of old.

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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