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Next election, expect Republicans to wield their S-words

Paul Wellstone
Photo by Terry Gydesen
Paul Wellstone, who today would be attacked as “radical” and especially “socialist” actually embraced the “L” word, which had been used to describe moderate leftism in U.S. politics since at least the Woodrow Wilson era.

Killer words come, lose their power to kill, and (maybe) go. But fond memories of Paul Wellstone grow fonder.

Writing for “Inside Elections” Stu Rothenberg hearkens back to the day when, if a Republican wanted to attack a Democrat, they would try to hang the word “liberal” around their neck. Now it’s “socialist.” In some cases, it’s the same policies that are under attack, like getting more people access to health care.

Rothenberg reminisced about the late Arthur Finkelstein, a Republican campaign consultant, nicknamed the “terminator” for his aggressive tactics and messaging. His specialty was weaponizing the word “liberal,” and one of his (relatively) few failures was in the 1996 Minnesota rematch between Sen. Paul Wellstone, and former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz.

During that race, in brilliant Dadaist fashion, Finkelstein labeled Wellstone as “liberal, liberal, liberal” in one ad, and “embarrassingly liberal” in another.

It was a cookie-cutter strategy. About Finkelstein’s work (his clients won far more than they lost) Political scientist Darrell West wrote: “He uses a sledgehammer in every race … I’ve detected five phrases he uses — ultraliberal, superliberal, embarrassingly liberal, foolishly liberal and unbelievably liberal.”  A National Republican Senatorial Committee attack ad by Finkelstein was described by the Washington Post:

A typical Boschwitz ad shows a distorted face and head of Wellstone atop a cartoon figure in a slovenly blue suit and red tie with arms that pop out with a “Liberal” sign when the announcer says: “He voted against the Balanced Budget Amendment” or “He voted against the death penalty for murderers, terrorists and drug kingpins” or “He’s voted against workfare time and again.”

Wellstone, who today would be attacked as “radical” and especially “socialist” (he was for national single-payer health care) actually embraced the “L” word, which had been used to describe moderate leftism in U.S. politics since at least the Woodrow Wilson era. Wellstone’s last book was titled “Conscience of a Liberal.” After Wellstone won an upset victory in 1990 over Boschwitz, Finkelstein was hired by the NRSC for the 1996 rematch and Minnesotans got the full Finkelstein L-word treatment.

Wellstone ran hard, but never ran from the L word and won again, by a surprising nine-percentage-point margin, a relatively rare setback for Finkelstein’s unsubtle sledgehammer. Perhaps Finkelstein’s success elsewhere is among the reasons that the word used by left-of-center Democrats to describe themselves morphed from “liberal” to “progressive” and the Republican attack word has morphed to “socialist.”

As you know, Democrats in some places no longer run away from the S-word either and one of the leading Democratic presidential candidates (Bernie Sanders) wears it proudly (although he prefers that you use “democratic socialist”). But Republicans definitely think S-wording is a winner for them.

Of course, many prosperous nations that are at least as democratic as ours are or have been led by parties who call themselves socialists or social democrats, including such hellscapes as Sweden, Norway, France, Spain, Finland, Belgium and many others. Those parties don’t always win, but you can’t beat them by calling them socialists, since that’s what they call themselves. And all of them have health care systems that cover pretty much everyone, and are proud of it, and have higher life expectancies than Americans do, and spend less per capita on health care.

Finkelstein was less active in recent years, and died in 2017. In 2011, in one of his last public speeches, he said: “I wanted to change the world. I did this. I made it worse.”

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/08/2019 - 01:08 pm.

    The last real Socialist running for office in the United States was Eugene Debs.
    There’s a big difference between Socialism (which advocates, among other things, public ownership of manufacture) and Social Democracy, as seen in Europe, which has plenty of privately owned manufacturing and finance.
    Another case (see the posting) for better civics education.

  2. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 05/08/2019 - 04:07 pm.

    SS and Medicare helped seniors survive the repub economic collapse…The Great Recession…and even these are being attacked by repubs.
    The Dems are not socialists…they are people trying to enact programs that help people afford life, including healthcare, while today’s repub party prefers undermining any of these issues, while working for only the wealthiest who do not need govt assistance.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/08/2019 - 05:45 pm.

    I can’t disagree with Finkelstein’s conclusion – he did make the world worse. Trump will accomplish much the same result, though he will lie about it.

  4. Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 05/08/2019 - 06:15 pm.

    Democrats need to define what it means to be a Democratic Socialist or Socialist by stating how people will benefit from policies and initiatives that will be labeled as such by Conservatives and Trumpists. If being a Democratic Socialist or Socialist means supporting good and affordable health care for everyone, clean air and water, a living wage, access to housing, and access to education, what is it that scares Conservatives about Socialism? Part of the problem is that many people are against Socialism because of what they think it is, but lack any knowledge of what being a Socialist means. Socialism as a word or concept has become so wrapped up with pejorative overtones that nobody seems to know what it really means. So, Democrats don’t wait, get out there and state what you stand for and if Conservatives are so terrified of your ideas that they label you a Socialist, throw it back at them and ask what are they so afraid of.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 05/08/2019 - 08:20 pm.

    Well I guess all is fair in love and war, so if the righties call out socialism, it would be fair to call out fascism to the opposing side?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/10/2019 - 10:29 am.

      No! That’s divisive! It will scare away all the die-hard Trump voters! And maybe even the moderates!

      All may be fair, but the thinking behind it is certainly asymmetrical.

  6. Submitted by Richard Steuland on 05/08/2019 - 08:45 pm.

    In order for these anti socialists to live their beliefs they cannot use the public roadways, the library. Postal service, firefighters, police, ,public parks ect. All these are Socialist. I suggest they look up the word Social.

  7. Submitted by Roy Everson on 05/09/2019 - 01:56 am.

    Wellstone’s gift was to connect personally with voters of all persuasions. As an “FDR-wing-of-the-party Democrat” he listened, he cared, he had ideas. He was a man of the people, but in order to win he needed voters who might disagree with him. Without the political talent he may not have withstood the “embarrassingly liberal” blather. A political heir of our late senator would be a good bet for 2020.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 05/09/2019 - 03:10 pm.

      An underappreciated characteristic of Sen Wellstone was his unusually blunt clarity in explaining his positions. He didn’t try to be all things to all people. He didn’t change his message depending on the audience. I think he attracted voters for that. Few politicians are willing to tell us when they disagree, and we view them as slimy for it.

  8. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/09/2019 - 08:04 am.

    I find many things exceptional about America; but a distinct exception is our inability to learn from others on a national basis. For some reason “American Exceptionalism” does not extend to areas where the scorecard is most easily and accurately kept. Our auto industry does fine, we sometimes have better ideas than the off shore competition and sometimes learn from them. Tesla being a good example of us on the plus side. Boeing vs. Airbus? Another back and forth battle where we temporarily don’t look great.

    The ability to improve from carefully understanding your peers/competitors is a critical skill where true competition exists. Look at the areas of sport where technology and athletic skills merge: rowing, bobsled, luge, yachting: hundredths of a second separating vastly different nations after several minutes of competition. They all learn and improve from each other.

    Now, try to tell the GOP we can really learn something from the healthcare systems of Sweden, Norway, France, Spain, Finland, Belgium and many others. Stand back as they laugh and ridicule such an idea.

    Why solve problems when you can win elections by not solving them?

    • Submitted by Tom Christensen on 05/09/2019 - 09:24 am.

      Years ago, when front wheel drive autos were first coming on the scene the US manufacturers would not or could not make front wheel drive cars. I believe it was Japan that was first to do so. The US manufacturers were trying to avoid the big upfront engineering cost, so they waited. They bought a Japanese car and reverse engineered it, and started making front wheel drive cars, thus avoiding the big upfront engineering costs. Now front wheel drive is common place. We learned from someone else.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/11/2019 - 08:33 am.

    Yes, Republicans have all the best words.

    The problem Republicans have is that fewer and fewer people are listening to whatever words they use. Yes, they have a loyal audience, but unless that audience increases in size they’re doomed to obscurity.

    Meanwhile, I keep seeing mainstream/consensus/”liberal” oriented writers who keep throwing the “S” word at us just as much as Republicans. THIS is he only article about the “S” word that I’ve seen in weeks.

  10. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/13/2019 - 09:28 am.

    I wonder if the “socialist” epithet might not backfire on the Republicans when it comes to young people who have been beaten up by the excesses of capitalism, such as high-interest student loans, low wages, arbitrary scheduling changes, overpriced apartments, and indifference or outright damage to the natural environment.

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