What's in a name? For politicians, a lot

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Politics,Congress,Republican Party,Democratic Party,Tea Party,2014 Elections,Campaigns,PennAve,Sean Lengell,John Zogby,Magazine

When Dave Brat scored a shocking primary win last month over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the media quickly labeled the upstart a Tea Party hero.

Trouble was, Brat didn't consider himself a member of the conservative movement, preferring to simply call himself a Republican. And neither did Tea Party groups, who largely ignored him.

“The national media is way too interested in trying to put people into little cubbyholes,” the Virginian told the Washington Examiner in June. “They're trying to have their nice little jockeying, gamesmanship-type columns, 'Dave, the Tea Partier.'”

Republican. Democrat. Centrist. Mainstream. Conservative. Liberal. Progressive. In an increasingly stratified, nuanced era of party politics, Brat's campaign highlights a common conundrum: How do we describe our politicians?

“To call somebody a Democrat or Republican isn't enough, to call somebody a conservative isn't enough because there are many different stripes of conservatives, and they're not all getting along well with each other," said John Zogby, a national political pollster.

The Tea Party's success has prompted Republicans to rethink how they're branded. The issue is particularly acute for Establishment Republicans because the term -- thanks largely to the Tea Party -- has been rendered a pejorative.

“We all know what liberal Democrat means, but when you talk about conservative Republicans, maybe there's more focus on libertarianism, maybe there's more focus on reforming the government, and that's why these new terms seem to be emerging,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.

But while some libertarians call themselves “Liberty Republicans,” and reform-minded GOPers may prefer "Reformicon," the public has yet to embrace these new labels, leaving politicians stuck navigating an outdated political vocabulary.

Bonjean advises GOP politicians of all stripes not to abandon their party moniker for risk of confusing voters.

“It would be very difficult to brand yourself as a ‘Reformicon’ or a “Liberty Republican’ because people don’t understand what that means,” he said. “’Vote for me, I’m a Republican Reformicon? It sounds like a space alien term that has not caught on.”

Liberals similarly have struggled with self identification. In the early 20th century the term meant free market, laissez-faire economics, free speech and minimal government interference. It morphed into its modern definition during the New Deal era.

Conservatives so derided the term in the 1980s that many liberals declared themselves “progressives.” Now, as Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute recently wrote, the two labels are taking on different shadings within the Democratic Party, with Hillary Clinton considered a liberal and Elizabeth Warren tagged as a progressive.

Polling show that the liberal label is making a comeback among millennials — those born in the 1990s and early 2000s. But Zogby said their definition features a more libertarian cast, a return to liberalism's early-1900s roots.

“Liberal [to them] includes their social libertarian sensibility, the ‘leave me alone, leave my privacy alone, leave my personal life alone,’” Zogby said. “That’s libertarian, but they’re calling it liberal.”

Sen. Rand Paul, a potential 2016 GOP candidate, has tapped into the libertarian movement better than any big-time politician, pushing the term further into voters' consciousness.

Yet even when a new moniker becomes popular, there's no guarantee it will stick. President Bill Clinton, while running on a centrist platform in the 1990s, identified himself as a "New Democrat." The term faded after he left office.

“If it has value to the country and helps people have a better political discourse, it’ll stick. If it’s a PR effort, generally it will not," Winston said.

Clinton also largely avoided calling himself a "centrist" or "moderate," Zogby said, because such terms rarely gain traction with voters.

“One of the things you don’t associate with centrism or moderation is passion,” he said. “You don’t see bumper stickers that say, ‘I’m moderate and I vote'. … It doesn’t get you anywhere.”

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Sean Lengell

Congressional Correspondent
The Washington Examiner

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