Democrats Left Their Spine In San Francisco

Welcome to a city that offers universal primary health care coverage to all of its citizens at a fraction of the cost of private insurance; is ranked as one of Bloomberg Businessweek’s 30 most livable metropolitan areas in the entire world; and where – in comparison to the United States average – life expectancy is longer, the unemployment rate is lower, and the median household income is nearly $20,000 higher. Welcome to the worst city in America: San Francisco.

I write that only partially tongue-in-cheek as – despite the above evidence – over the last three decades the Republican Party has branded the Bay Area as a modern day Gomorrah. Speaking at the Republican National Convention in 1984, United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick chastised her political opponents as “San Francisco Democrats.” The categorization was both literal and pejorative. The Democratic National Convention was indeed held at the Moscone centre in San Francisco that same year, but Kirkpatrick also meant “San Francisco Democrats” as a criticism of the party’s perceived leftward shift. California Republican Frank Riggs used a variation of the term in 1996, deriding his Democratic opponent Michela Alioto as possessing “San Francisco values.” The “values” phrase exploded in popularity when Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House in 2006. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly used it nightly to assail the Speaker and the Democratic Party as a whole, joining in the conservative chorus that characterises her hometown as symbolic of all that was wrong with America.

The Democratic Party’s response to the attack was typical: full-scale retreat. Following the Democrats’ 2010 electoral wipe out, many in the party blamed Pelosi for their losses and North Carolina representative Heath Schuler even challenged her for Minority Leader. The orchestrator of the Democrats’ congressional victories four years earlier and first female Speaker of the House was forced to defend her stature as party leader from a Blue Dog backbencher. Schuler proudly emphasised his “mountain family values” in his quest to scrounge up votes, a not-so-subtle variation of the Republican talking point that Pelosi – and by extension her constituents – was out of step with Middle America. While Pelosi emerged from that battle victorious, she was badly bruised and has largely remained absent from recent political discourse. The new face of the House Democratic leadership is Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a moderate New Democrat from Maryland. Pelosi’s silence is a tacit acknowledgment by the party that indeed their agenda (health care reform, cap-and-trade, stimulus package) was too liberal under her leadership.

But according to opinion polling, the Democratic Party platform of the 110th Congress was not as liberal as critics claimed. In fact, the Democratic agenda enjoyed broad popular support in its beginnings. On March 5, 2009 a CNN/Opinion Research poll indicated that 72% of Americans wanted the government to step in and fix health care. In October, 2009 60% of respondents in a different CNN/Opinion Research survey favoured a cap-and-trade scheme to combat global warming. And immediately following the passage of the 2009 economic stimulus bill, the American public gave President Obama a strong 67% approval rating for the way in which he handled the issue. Trouble arose when Democrats were slow to respond to coordinated conservative attacks throughout the blogosphere, talk radio and Fox News. The Republican echo chamber kicked into high gear and turned the laudable goal of extending health care to all into “socialized medicine” and later “ObamaCare.” Once a bipartisan initiative, the free-market trading of carbon emissions became “cap-and-tax.” And conservatives were so successful at demonizing the word “stimulus” that Democrats stopped using it altogether. In each case the Democrats lost the messaging war and allowed the GOP to articulate the terms of the debate. Political history has proven that when Democrats refuse to define their agenda, the Republican Party is all too eager to do it for them.

When the Democrats swept into office under the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, the party relied on a coalition of labour unions, minorities and big city machines to maintain political power. As the national Democratic Party moved left on Civil Rights in the 1960s, Republicans recognised a golden opportunity to fracture their opponents’ electoral alliance. The right first began to use the word “liberal” as a derogatory term to divide the FDR coalition, but the effort was easily thwarted by a confident Democratic Party still riding high from the success of the New Deal. Accepting the Liberal Party of New York’s nomination for President in 1960, John F. Kennedy addressed his conservative detractors and gave a passionate defence of liberalism: “What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label ‘liberal?’… If by a ‘liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of all people – their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties – someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘liberal’ then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘liberal.'”

Kennedy’s speech represents the peak of liberalism in its American definition. Although Lyndon Johnson advanced the goals of his predecessor’s administration – civil rights, Medicare, Medicaid –with each piece of legislation the Democratic coalition eroded. Concurrently, the right-wing denunciation of liberalism found traction in members of the white working class who were appalled at the hippie and protest movements taking place on college campuses. This backlash spread into popular culture with the program “All in the Family” which became the most watched show on television thanks to its protagonist Archie Bunker. Portrayed by Carroll O’Connor, Bunker was a blue-collar worker who served as a microcosm of Middle America’s attitudes towards the societal changes taking place. Bunker’s repeated denunciations of “pinko liberals” did more to break away conservative whites from the Democratic Party than the GOP could have ever dreamed.

Walter Mondale resurrected the “liberal” label in 1984, only to lose 40-nine states in Ronald Reagan’s re-election landslide. In the wake of this crushing defeat, the Democratic Party was all too eager to leave the “L-word” on the floor of the San Francisco convention hall. In the 1988 presidential election, Vice President George Bush relentlessly portrayed his Democratic opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis, as a liberal who was spineless and possessed a reckless disregard for public safety.  Hoping to appeal to many of the Archie Bunker Democrats who had abandoned the party, Dukakis failed to directly respond to Bush’s caricature. Only nine days before the election did Dukakis proudly declare: “Yes, I’m a liberal in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman and John Kennedy.” By that point it was too late.  Four years later Bill Clinton ran as a “progressive” because internal polling showed that a self-described “liberal” could never win in 1992. The Republican Party was thus declared victorious in their 30-year war on liberalism.

The Democrats’ abandonment of the word “liberal” stands out as one of the classic case studies of cowardice in American politics. Yet embers remain from the fiery liberalism lit by Roosevelt and Kennedy, anxiously awaiting the chance to catch aflame when a new Democratic president connects the party’s values with a vision for America. For America is not just a country or set of defined borders, it is an idea. People around the world dream of not only coming to the United States but also becoming an American. Many have risked their lives to reside in a place where they are guaranteed the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And even though Americans may not agree with each other’s lifestyle, political beliefs or religious affiliation, because they are bound by their mutual identification as citizens of the United States they agree to defend each other’s right to do whatever it is they choose. That belief is the essence of liberalism, the ethos of places like San Francisco, and the fundamental nature of America. Therefore, the next time a pundit inquires whether a Democratic candidate adheres to “San Francisco values” they should respond with the following:

First, let me say that San Francisco is home to some of this country’s most successful companies that have created millions of new jobs and ensured America continues to be the most prosperous nation on Earth. But San Francisco is also much more than that. It’s is an incredible amalgamation of immigrants, natives, liberals, conservatives, the pious, the secular and everyone in between who respect one another not because of outward appearance but instead by inner character. It’s a place where everyone is free to pursue the American Dream exactly how he or she chooses. So to answer your question on whether I support ‘San Francisco values’ the answer is yes, I do. But I believe a better question would be one for my Republican colleagues who supposedly stand for free enterprise and individual liberty: “Why don’t you support those values too?” 

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