Dear Sen. Kerry:

In the interests of your campaign and your party's desire to unseat George W. Bush, you have some explaining to do. During the primary campaign, your Democratic opponents accused you of flip-flopping on several important issues, such as your vote in favor of the Iraq War resolution.

Certainly your sensitivity to nuance, your ability to see shades of gray where George Bush sees only black and white, explains some of your difficulty. Shades of gray don't do well in political campaigns, where primary colors are the rule. And your long and distinguished service in the Senate has no doubt led to genuine changes in some positions. But the denial that you are a liberal is almost impossible to reconcile.

When the National Journal said your Senate record makes you one of the most liberal members of the Senate, you called that "a laughable characterization" and "the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen in my life." Wow!

Liberals, who make up a substantial portion of the Democratic Party and a significant portion of the independent vote, are entitled to ask, "What gives?" It isn't just the National Journal that has branded you as a liberal. So has the liberal lobbying group Americans for Democratic Action. Senator, check your own Web site. It says you are for rolling back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, for tax credits to both save and create jobs, for real investment in our schools. You've voted, in the words of your own campaign, for "every major piece of civil rights legislation to come before Congress since 1985, as well as the Equal Rights Amendment." You count yourself (and are considered by others) a leader on environmental protection issues. You are committed to saving Medicare and Social Security, and you are an internationalist in foreign policy.

What are you ashamed of? Are you afflicted with the Dukakis syndrome – that loss of nerve that has allowed conservatives both to define and to demonize liberalism for the past decade and more? You remember, of course, that it was during the 1988 presidential campaign that George Bush I attacked Democrat Michael Dukakis both for opposing the Vietnam War and for stating he was a card-carrying member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Both proved, Bush said, that Dukakis was a liberal. Dukakis responded to that as an attack on his patriotism. He defended neither liberalism nor the ACLU.

Dukakis might have responded by saying: "I am surprised, Mr. Bush, that you are not a member of the ACLU. We do not have to agree on all the positions that the ACLU may take on this issue or that, but we should applaud its effort to protect the rights of Americans, even those charged with heinous crimes." Dukakis might have defended liberalism as the legacy of FDR and Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy – none of whom were anything like 100 percent liberals but all of whom advanced the cause of a truly liberal democracy.

But by ducking the issue, Dukakis opened the way for the far right to make "L" for liberal a scarlet letter with which to brand all who oppose them. In the course of that 1988 exchange, Bush offered a telling observation, saying, in effect, that liberals don't like being called liberal. You seem to have reaffirmed that analysis.

If 1988 taught us anything, it is that a candidate who lacks the courage of his convictions cannot hope to convince the nation that he should be given its leadership. So, Senator, some detailed explanations are in order if you hope to have any chance of defeating even a wounded George II in November. You cannot let the Bush league define you or the issues. You have to do that yourself. Take my advice and lay it all out, before it's too late.


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(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite

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