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The Nation

Who's Afraid of Liberalism? The GOP

John Nichols

How scared are the folks over at the Republican National Committee as they head toward an election cycle in which their party's hold on at least one branch of the federal government — which they've enjoyed for all but two years since 1981 — could end?

Faced with the prospect that both the presidency will fall to the Democrats in 2008 as the Congress did in 2006, the RNC is scared to the point of delusion.

How delusional? This week, they've appeared to be more worried about the annual "Take Back America" conference than they are about global warming or the collapse of international regard for the United States.

Since the early days of the Bush administration, the Campaign for America's Future has organized its yearly "Take Back America" conferences in Washington each June. The conference has gone from strength to strength, growing in size and stature as the country has awoken to the reality that neoconservatives have indeed kidnapped America.

The Campaign for America's Future is a decidely mainstream group with close ties to organized labor and an approach to domestic and international issues that follows the outlines established by Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he set the frame for modern Democratic Party. If there is a contemporary heir to the Roosevelt traditon -- and that of his Republican rival, Wendell Willkie, who argued that the Grand Old Party was the truer champion of American liberalism -- it is the Campaign for American Future.

Now that polls suggest liberal values are making a comeback, however, the RNC has been working overtime to portray the conference as something akin to a meeting of the Supreme Soviet -- and to suggest that Democratic contenders who attend it are straying into the lunatic fringe. Nothing could be further from the truth; the fact is that there have been complaints from progressives who think the "Take Back America" conference is too tepid in its critique of Bush -- and in its willingness to call on a Democratic Congress to hold the president to account.

But such subtleties are wasted on the Republican attack machine.

Day after day, the RNC has dispatched press releases savaging the only candidates it cares about -- New York Senator Hillary Clinton ☼, Illinois Senator Barack Obama ☼ and its favorite target, North Carolina Senator John Edwards -- for appearing at the "Take Back America" conference. The feverish Republicans have detailed every day's developments at a gathering that -- like the annual Conservative Political Action Conference that is held each spring -- is distinguished by the fact that it draws thousands of grassroots activists to Washington.

The RNC began the week with a hand-wringing release that declared: "Democrat Leaders To Pander To Left-Wing: 'Take Back America' Conference."

Now that the conference is finished, the RNC is attacking Obama for winning a straw poll of "Take Back America" attendees. The poll, conducted by the website, gave Obama 29 percent, Edwards 26 percent, Clinton 17 percent, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson 9 percent and Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich 5 percent. The other contenders were at one percent or less, except for undeclared candidate Al Gore, who attracted enough write-in votes to secure a respectable 8 percent.

So what was the RNC headline on a release issued barely an hour after the results were announced Wednesday afternoon? "LIBERAL SEAL OF APPROVAL: Obama Continues To Win Support Among Liberal Organizations, But Should We Be Surprised Given His Liberal Senate Record?"

Neither the Campaign for America's Future, nor the Democratic candidates, should object to the attention. It's a sign of success. For most of the Bush era, the RNC had no real interest in what liberal or liberal groups were doing. If the Republicans noticed them it all, it was for purposes of ridicule. But no more. The Republican National Committee is scared -- scared silly -- by the shift in the party's fortunes.

So they will scream "liberal, liberal, liberal." They will, undoubtedly, keep doing so until it dawns on someone at the RNC that after all these years of conservative hegemony, the label "liberal" is far less frightening to the electorate than "neoconservative." Indeed, a study released on the eve of the "Take Back America" conference revealed that solid majorities of Americans support higher taxes on the wealthy, an increase in the minimum wage, and government responsibility to ensure that Americans have health insurance, according to data examined in the report.

With 58 percent of Americans now telling National Election Studies pollsters that they want a "more active government that performs more functions and provide more services," the RNC have to resurrect some of those old Wendell Willkie quotes about how the Republicans merit the liberal stamp of approval. Until then, however, Mr. Obama should welcome the attention -- and the approval.

John Nichols' new book is The Genius of Impeachment: The Founders' Cure for Royalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Copyright © 2007 The Nation

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