The "Last Liberal" in Washington?

The "Last Liberal" in Washington?
by L. Brent Bozell III
January 30, 1997

Despite the triumphal rhetoric of the last couple of years, the era of Big Government is clearly not over. James Bovard lines up the numbers in the latest American Spectator: spending, taxes, and regulation have all skyrocketed since Ronald Reagan launched his revolution in 1980. The number of federal lawsuits and administrative penalties have soared. In the last ten years, the Endangered Species Act has led to an ever-broader federal claim on private property.

Washington reporters have another item to add to the endangered species list: liberals! The New York Times mourned departing Labor Secretary Robert Reich with the headline "The Last Liberal (Almost) Leaves Town." Reporter David Sanger began by calling Reich "one of the lonely liberals of the Clinton administration" and warned that "his departure leaves only Donna E. Shalala, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, as an outspoken liberal voice in the Cabinet."

The Times inspired the uniformly liberal panel of reporters on the PBS dronefest "Washington Week in Review." Moderator Ken Bode noted wistfully: "We kind of said goodbye to Bob Reich, the Secretary of Labor, who was really sort of the last liberal in this administration." NPR reporter Mara Liasson agreed: "I think there is no one in the Cabinet right now to carry the kinds of issues Robert Reich did. As a matter of fact, just this week President Clinton said we are actually making improvements in the equality between working people, which is not necessarily supported by the evidence." New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse worried: "Are there no liberals left in the Cabinet? White House staff?" Liasson responded: "Very, very few, and certainly none that are prominent. Now, President Clinton has chosen a new administration that certainly fits with his effort to govern from the vital center."

What liberal reporters are mourning here is not really the disappearance of liberals, nor even liberalism. They are voicing their disappointment at the insufficient advocacy of unashamed liberalism in the public square. The electoral success of conservatism can change the terms of Washington rhetoric. From Clinton down, virtually every Democrat attempts to sound conservative. And yet still nothing stops the ever-increasing size and scope of the federal establishment.

This strange cry of "last liberals" has been heard before. A very similar conversation took place on "Washington Week in Review" in April 1994, with the nomination of Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court. Greenhouse told Bode that departing Justice Harry Blackmun brought "a very particular voice, a kind of people-oriented vision, and I think it's a distinctive voice that added something very substantial to this mix, and that's a voice we won't be hearing now." So why couldn't Greenhouse call Blackmun what he was - a liberal? "As for Harry Blackmun's liberalism, you know, it's everything in context. I think the last true liberals on the court were Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall." Steven Roberts of U.S. News & World Report asked: "Is this the end of the liberal bloc on the court?"

The Washington Post also has trouble finding liberals on the Supreme Court. Al Kamen charged in 1993 that "moderately conservative" Ruth Bader Ginsburg's appointment might allow the "moderate" John Paul Stevens to write majority opinions. (To place Kamen's worldview on the examination table, he also described liberal Leon Panetta as "the Freddy Krueger of social programs.")

Last year, then-ABC reporter John Hockenberry's hunt for vanishing liberals found only Sen. Paul Wellstone, "a lonely voice in the Senate of Bob Dole and Phil Gramm. What happened to the opposition? To the whole idea of opposition in America?" Eight years ago, reporters were tyring it, with Howard Fineman claiming in the June 5, 1989 Newsweek: "Rep. David Bonior, 43, now the chief deputy whip, would like to move up to whip. The Vietnam vet is one of the hill's last liberals."

How do these bizarre plaints make any sense? Perhaps this self-pitying staple betrays a clever game of political jiujitsu. When voters get a clear whiff of the old-time liberal religion (take the Clinton health plan in 1993-94), they correctly recoil at the pendulum swinging so far to the left. In response, the media have piled on threatening articles on the dangers of ultraconservative congressional dominance of Washington. (Ditto with the courts: Remember the Newsweek cover after Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's retirement, the ominous question in big block letters: "How Far Right?") Match their regular cluck-clucking about "extremist" Republican politicians with the grieving that liberals have somehow vanished from the seat of power, and you have a plea to the voters: Balance the power. Swing the pendulum left.

The public might consider glancing at a few basic facts before they buy the media's surreal hyperbole - the federal budget ($590 billion in 1980, $1.6 trillion in 1996) or the federal debt (26.8 percent of gross domestic product in 1980, over 50 percent today). The left is very much alive in Washington, DC.