WASHINGTON — About as many left-of-center political groups in the nation's capital call themselves liberals these days as say they're Whigs. Instead, they call themselves "progressives."
What progressive means is "pretty murky," political historian Alan Brinkley said. Still, murky is a big improvement over "liberal," a mainstream term in the `60s that conservatives reduced to a dirty word in the '80s.
Pollsters say that the shift to "progressive" sheds the onus of the liberal label and enables left-of-center groups and candidates to fight again.
Although the term "progressive" has a distinguished early 20th-century history that includes reformers Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, uncertainty about what it means today works in favor of erstwhile liberals.
Mary Helms, for example, whose family raises peanuts and cotton in Dothan, Ala., said that she knew what a liberal was. "Someone who doesn't have very good morals," said Helms, who's 54.
And a progressive? "I don't really know anyone who says he's a progressive," Helms said. So she has nothing against them.
Among Washington L-groups that eschew the L-word in favor of "progressive" are:
_ People for the American Way, among whose stated missions is to "promote progressive policies" and "elect progressive candidates."
_ America Votes, a powerful voter-recruitment coalition that seeks to "increase progressive voter registration and turnout."
_ EMILY's List, "dedicated to building a progressive America" by raising money for left-of-center candidates.
_ MoveOn.org, a promoter of liberal causes whose constituent groups "work together to realize the progressive promise of our country."
_ President Barack Obama's favorite policy institute, the Center for American Progress, may be the most progressive of all. It uses the term 12 times in its online mission statement.
Talk-show host Rush Limbaugh is on to the switch. To spread the old tar, he often refers now to "liberal progressives." So is Michael Savage, another leading conservative radio voice. Both liberals and progressives, he says, are "degenerates . . . on an express train to hell."
Founder John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, spelled out what he meant by progressive in a 2008 election season book, "The Power of Progress."
Liberals tend to care more about individual freedom, Podesta wrote, while progressives care more about the public good. Their number includes Republicans, he adds, citing historic reformers such as Roosevelt and Robert LaFollette. That liberals in their day also included Republicans goes unmentioned, as Podesta is at great pains to make the small point that liberal and progressive are "not exactly the same."
Still, when he's asked the difference between liberals and progressives, Podesta wrote, he responds, "Call me whatever you want."
Democratic presidential contenders were fey about the L-word, too, in the last campaign. "I prefer the word progressive," Hillary Clinton said in a July 2007 debate.
"We're all progressives," John Edwards chimed in.
The political gain from shifting to "progressive" is massive, according to a post-debate analysis by the public opinion research firm Rasmussen Reports.
Only 20 percent of respondents considered calling a candidate a liberal to be a positive description, it found. However, 35 percent considered it positive to call a candidate a progressive.
Equally telling, 39 percent considered "liberal" a negative, while only 18 percent saw "progressive" as negative.
Ralph Nader, an anti-corporate Progressive of the old school, isn't suffering one-time liberals who'd rather switch than fight. So many are "deserting the liberal ship and swimming over to the progressive ship," he said, that "you have people calling themselves progressives that make me laugh."
One of the few groups still aboard the liberal ship is Americans for Democratic Action, which describes itself as "committed to liberal politics, liberal policies and a liberal future."
Amy Isaacs, the national director of Americans for Democratic Action, dismisses progressives as "liberals who don't have the courage of their own convictions."
She and others blame Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis — a former member of Americans for Democratic Action's Swarthmore College chapter — for failing to stand up for liberalism in his 1988 campaign. Although Reagan spoke out against the "L-word" at the Republican convention that year, and George H.W. Bush baited Dukakis with it, the former Massachusetts governor ignored the jibes until his campaign's last days.
"I made the biggest mistake of my life when I decided not to respond to that attack campaign," said Dukakis, who now teaches at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"But if 'progressive' sounds better and reflects better what we're talking about," he added, "I'm all for using 'progressive.' "
THE ORIGINS OF 'PROGRESSIVE'
The original Progressive era, from the 1890s to the 1920s, produced many important social changes, including women's suffrage, child labor limits, workers' compensation, open government laws, a minimum wage, the progressive income tax and open primary elections.
Faith in government intervention to achieve fairness was a hallmark of Progressive thinking, as was faith in science to improve humankind. Corporate power was the archfoe. Among Progressive leaders were Republicans Theodore Roosevelt and Wisconsin's Robert LaFollette, a governor and senator who ran for president as a Progressive in 1924.
Woodrow Wilson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida Tarbell and Thorstein Veblen also were Progressives. Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt and Walter Lippmann helped carry Progressive politics into the `40s and beyond.
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