Liberals: What's Left? Not Many, but They Persist

CONSIDER this: In last November's congressional elections, only two of the 32 members of the House's Progressive Caucus were voted out of office.

That's almost a 94-percent reelection rate for a group of unabashed liberals - who nowadays call themselves progressives - in an election that swept the Democrats out of control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Only 85 percent of House Democrats who ran for reelection succeeded, while Republicans scored a 100-percent return rate.

Several explanations can be cited for the caucus members' success. Many come from ``safe'' Democratic districts, some heavy with groups that usually vote Democratic. And there's the reelection advantage of incumbents, says Dan Greenberg, a Congress-watcher at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

It may also be that these members are simply good at representing their districts, regardless of their exact political leanings. And of course, they represent a small statistical sample, only 7 percent of the House's 435 members.

But for the caucus leadership, the members' success signaled no less than a hearty endorsement of progressive principles, as their statement of purpose says: ``social and economic justice, a non-discriminatory society, and national priorities which represent the interests of all people, not just the wealthy and the powerful.''

These are lean times for Democrats, out of power in Congress, floundering in the White House, blaming themselves and each other publicly for not defending the accomplishments of the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s Great Society and for allowing conservatives to claim the mantle as defenders of ``family, God, and country.''

``One of the difficulties about liberalism today is that so many people have no historical memory at all about how we got to where we are,'' says ex-presidential candidate George McGovern, a Democrat whose name has been turned into an epithet for liberalism. ``They took for granted things that were very hard fought, tough battles that liberals won against the opposition of the conservatives. Most people never give a thought when they collect their Social Security checks or Medicare benefits that those were very hard-fought fights.''

So it may be that the unapologetic left is looking for any signs of hope on a bleak political landscape. But for Rep. Bernie Sanders (Ind.) of Vermont, the Congress's only socialist and head of the Progressive Caucus, adversity presents an opportunity to hold up the caucus's agenda as a sharp contrast to the Republicans' ``Contract With America.''

The group leads off its own 11-part alternative to the Contract by proposing that any balanced-budget requirement be waved if unemployment goes above 4 percent. Other suggestions include:

* Cutting ``corporate welfare'' by eliminating special subsidies and tax loopholes.

* A cradle-to-grave government-run health-care system.

* Some public financing of congressional elections.

* Eliminating or limiting the incentives to US-based multinational corporations to produce goods offshore.

* Allowing penalty-free withdrawals from individual retirement accounts by parents who want to stay home with children under the age of 6.

Some caucus ideas coincide with the thinking in the Clinton administration, such as reductions in corporate subsidies and increasing the minimum wage. Others, like government-run health care, are nowhere on the mainstream Democratic radar screen.

But the Progressive Caucus, which was formed four years ago but is only now seriously pushing an agenda and recruiting new members, says all it wants is to be heard.

``They present their program, we present ours. Let the American people make that choice,'' says Congressman Sanders. ``Do you want to cut back on food programs for hungry children or do you want to cut back on the Star Wars program?''

Included in the caucus ranks are two of the House Democrats' most voluble members, Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, and Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. But countering the Republican message, amplified by the right's extensive talk-radio network, will be tough, say liberals. Liberal Texas politician Jim Hightower's new talk-radio show is now on 130 stations. Deposed New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Texas columnist Molly Ivins are being pursued for talk radio as well.

But George McGovern sees a long haul ahead for liberalism.

``During 12 years of Reagan-Bush leadership, they could always point to the fact that the Democrats controlled the Congress,'' says the former senator from South Dakota. ``It may be a healthy thing to let the Republicans run the whole show for a decade or so and see what happens. My guess is these problems may get worse, especially if they stick with the contract formula of cutting taxes and increasing defense outlays.''

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