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.”