One of the lasting legacies of Ronald Reagan was the denigration of the word “liberal,” when he managed to make what had been a proud label now became a badge of shame. It was a stunning achievement, and it still persists to this day.
Ever since then, the liberals in politics and the media have struggled to undo this one act. They’ve tried to redeem the name, to try to re-attach positive connotations to it, to denounce those who persist in using “liberal” as an epithet. And it’s largely been ineffective.
However, there’s another tack. Some have decided to find a new word to supplant “liberal,” to embody its meaning in one more acceptable to the body politic.
And since it was Cowboy Reagan who did such damage to the term, why not find a “cowboy” word to use in its place?
A “maverick” originally meant an unbranded cow, named after James Maverick, a rancher who refused to brand his herd. When cowboys would find a unbranded stray, they’d say “That’s Maverick’s,” and the term evolved into meaning someone who doesn’t abide by established rules — but in a positive, romantic sense. Tom Cruise’s character used it as his call sign in “Top Gun,” for example.
Of late, the term has come to refer to politicians who stray from their party’s orthodoxy. “Maverick” has been used to describe John McCain so much that I’m half-convinced if he does run for president again, he’ll try to get himself listed on the ballot as “‘Maverick'” John McCain.”
However, it only seems to apply to those who stray to the left from their party. I’ve seen McCain and Senator Lincoln Chaffee called “mavericks,” but I don’t recall Democrat Zell Miller being hung with that apppellation.
I finally got confirmation of this theory today, when the Boston Glob ran a puff piece on Vermont’s Congressman Bernie Sanders.
Sanders is a vintage 60’s leftist. He ran for — and won — the mayorship of Burlington as a declared, proud Socialist. He then used that as a springboard to run for the Green Mountain State’s sole House seat, where he’s been firmly ensconced since 1990. And now that Senator Jim Jeffords is retiring, he’s eyeballing moving to the Upper House.
Sanders has a rather odd relationship with the Democrats. He’s an open Socialist, so a lot of Americans don’t trust him, but he can be relied to vote with them most of the time. Sanders has previously enjoyed tremendous support from Vermont’s voters. And the Democrats are so comfortable with him that they aren’t even bothering to back an official Democrat to oppose him, out of fear of splitting the liberal vote and giving the Republicans the win.
MoveOn.org has already committed to backing Sanders, and in their first e-mail campaign they rounded up $136,000 for his war chest.
The Republicans, however, are positively salivating at the thought. They have made tremendous strides in Vermont in the last few years, ever since the Democrats then controlling the state government passed a Civil Unions act. The voters were appalled, and the Republicans rode that outrage into taking control of the Governor’s office and both houses.
And now they have a chance for what could be considered the biggest prize of all — to reclaim the Senate seat they lost when Jeffords left the GOP in 2001, costing them their majority. Further, to take a Senate seat in Howard Dean’s own (adopted) home state would be a great victory. Finally, the chance to hang the Democrats with the association of backing a proud, open Socialist is the stuff Karl Rove’s fantasies are made of.
All in all, it looks like Vermont’s Senate race next year might prove to be one of the most entertaining political shows of the election.
Update: After the prompting of a few commenters (who, frankly, had a good idea but carried out wrongly), I did some Googling on (Maverick “John McCain”), (Maverick “Zell Miller”), and (Maverick “Lincoln Chafee”). McCain scored over 38,000 hits, Miller 7,000, and Chafee 951. Readers are welcome to conduct their own experiments with the politicians of their choice, and post the results in the comments section.)