Washington Week

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Leaning Left and Right: Why Labels Won't Help This Year

OK, folks, it’s time for another of my periodic forays into definitional politics.

To accomplish this, I have to take my own profession to task – and then rise to its defense. The problem: we reach too easily for shorthand. The defense: we live for shorthand.

This run-up to this week’s elections gave us a rich trove of gaffes to choose from to help me make my point, but I’ll settle on two events that lend themselves to two key questions.

Who is the liberal left? What is the Tea Party?
Either of these terms -- bandied about quite widely when we are covering elections – is subject to wild and subjective misinterpretation. But in a year when voters appear to be mad at everybody, it’s beginning to look like labels mean little. Here are two.

The Liberal Left. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs stepped directly into a pot of boiling hot water when he groused to a reporter about the travails of dealing with what he called the “professional left.”

It’s worth hearing all that Gibbs said to a reporter from The Hill during an interview in his West Wing office. (This was not a quick quote, grabbed on the fly.)

“I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush,” Gibbs said, referring to how some liberals view President Obama. “Those people ought to be drug tested. I mean, it’s crazy.”

The "those people," Gibbs was alluding to in his interview with White House reporter Sam Youngman, are what Gibbs dubbed the “professional left.” “They will only be satisfied (with President Obama) when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”

Gibbs added, “They wouldn’t be satisfied if Dennis Kucinich was president.” (Nice touch, Robert, since Rep. Kucinich’s critical vote switch helped the President get his health care bill passed.)

Liberals, many who are none too happy with the White House these days, were predictably outraged, and Gibbs backpedaled later in the week – but too far. He left on the record, for all the world to see, the disdain reserved for people who disagree with the White House.

This is not unique to President Obama. Most Presidents have this problem with the diehard loyalists who comprise their political base. (Why don’t they leave us alone? Can’t they see we’re on their side?) But most Presidents – and the people who speak for them -- bite their tongues before they make such admissions aloud to reporters with tape recorders. Or at least they reserve their public criticisms for the other party.

Then there are the Tea Partiers. We like to pigeonhole them too, although there is abundant evidence that there is no common definition of what exactly the Tea Party is.

At best, it is a growing movement that is effectively capturing widespread discontent with the American political system. And smart candidates are attaching themselves to these motivated voters as tightly as they can.

Ken Buck, Colorado’s freshly-minted Republican Senate nominee, captured some of that lightning in a bottle when he embraced Tea Party sentiment to defeat the favored candidate, former Lt. Governor Jane Norton in Tuesday’s primary.

Buck beat Norton even though he’d been captured on videotape saying voters should support him “because I do not wear high heels,” which presumably would offend the Sarah Jessica Parker wing of the party.

And Buck won even though he’d been captured on another occasion -- this time on audiotape -- using an expletive to berate Tea Party supporters who repeatedly asked him at campaign events about President Obama’s citizenship status. (Notice the recording theme? Memo to candidates: someone’s always recording.)

Perhaps the only way to define a Tea Party candidate is by what he or she is not. That is, in fact, what Buck did at a January candidate’s forum when he said, "I will not take an oath to the leadership of the Republican Party."

But if there is one thing that is getting clearer by the moment, it is that there isn’t a whole lot to be gained by taking an oath to either the left or the right. According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, voting Americans have grown more disenchanted each day with every political symbol of power – from the President and First Lady to lawmakers from both parties.

"I think it’s a ‘Jet Blue’ election. Everyone is frustrated," pollster Peter Hart told NBC (in a reference to flight attendant Steven Slater’s abrupt departure from a plane this week). "And everyone is headed for the emergency exit."

Which, I guess, brings me back to my original point? Labels and easy definitions can be dangerous. In a midterm election that features libertarians, wrestling executives and nominees who brag about the manure on their cowboy boots, political survival may boil down to running as fast and as hard as possible toward brand new definitions.