The new `me-tooism'

PERHAPS the most curious aspect of this presidential contest is not that liberalism is under attack, but that so few are defending it. Indeed, Governor Dukakis, who could claim impeccable liberal credentials and liberal associates, has been running away from the liberal legacy. All of which is reminiscent of the elections after Franklin Roosevelt became President. Then liberalism was king and conservatism had few supporters. Those were the times of ``me-tooism'' - when many Republicans sounded like echoes of FDR on the issues. They usually rejected labels on their own political philosophies. Instead, they claimed to be ``pragmatists.''

Today, Governor Dukakis is eschewing his liberalism, calling himself a pragmatist whose chief skill lies in getting things done. Competence, he argues, is what this race is all about. Not ideology.

Dukakis says he can outdo Bush as an administrator. He says he would vastly improve the way the federal government is run. He would get rid of that immense deficit. His would be a carefully managed administration watched over by a frugal president. Oh yes, he would spend for good causes, like education, but only after first seeing to it the funds would be available.

This is a far cry from the approach of past Democratic candidates. Only four years ago Walter Mondale carried the Democrats' liberal banner. He called for spending for social programs and said there would have to be more taxes. His thumping at the polls that fall was well noted by fellow Democrats. Their current candidate isn't publicly embracing the old-time liberal philosophy of spending federal money to cure social ills.

For someone, like me, who cast his first presidential vote when FDR was running for a second term, this turnaround seems almost incomprehensible.

As the years went on and Roosevelt pursued his social revolution, GOP presidential candidates moved away from conservatism to ``pragmatism.'' They embraced many of the Democrats' approaches to governing. Over the last few years, the wind seems to have shifted almost l80 degrees. To put it bluntly: The Democrats are muffling their liberalism and sounding very much like a new kind of ``me-tooers.''

No, not just Dukakis. During the primary period most of the Democratic candidates made appearances at the Monitor's breakfast group. One after another declared their admiration for frugality and efficient government. In fact, to hear them tell it, it was President Reagan who, by his excessive spending, was letting the country down. They would correct this. No talk from them of liberalism - of throwing federal money after domestic problems.

But not Jesse Jackson. He was, and remains, a liberal of the old school. As Hubert Humphrey used to put it, he believes in ``using the old-time Democratic medicine'' to deal with problems. Not Paul Simon, either. He actually owned up to being an old-time FDR liberal.

But Simon clearly wasn't in tune with the new breed of Democrat who turns his back on the old liberalism while insisting he has the same old feeling for liberal causes. Because of budget and tax realities, this new-style Democrat argues, emphasis must be on efficient, effective government.

The Republicans believe today's Democrats are on to something. They are convinced there is a conservative trend in the thinking of Americans and that Ronald Reagan's two terms attest the popularity of conservatism. For proof, GOP faithful point to the Democrats' desire to tap this voter trend.

Remember what President Reagan said at the New Orleans convention? ``The masquerade is over. It's time to ... use the dreaded `L' word; to say the policies of our opposition ... are liberal, liberal, liberal.''

Some decry the trend. Fritz Stern, history professor at Columbia University, refers to Reagan's ``vilification of liberalism.'' In the New York Times, Stern argues that ``At its best, liberalism has been a force for change and progress, seeking the institutional defense of decency.''

But the political reality comes down to this: admitting you are a liberal doesn't win presidential elections. Dukakis and other ``pragmatists'' concede as much.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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