Politics & Policy


How about two distinct visions?

The wonderful thing about writing op-ed pieces is that I get ample feedback, often from people unencumbered by the niceties of interpersonal diplomacy.

Last week, I did what you might expect a conservative columnist to do. I told young orphans there is no Santa Claus. No, no, just kidding. (Besides, I’d have gotten a better reaction closer to the holidays.)

No, I merely cataloged the troubles of the Democratic party. The infuriated response from hordes of liberal readers was, “How could you criticize the Democrats when the Republicans are in so much more trouble?” Fortunately they provided their own answers, most of which involved words such as “hack” and “shill,” and phrases ill-suited to a family newspaper–or even to bars frequented by ex-cons. Angry readers recounted the long parade of GOP problems: warrantless wiretaps, the Abramoff scandal, Tom DeLay’s indictment, Katrina, the revelation that President Bush is Rosemary’s Baby, etc.

And that was before Vice President Dick Cheney started shooting people.

Allow me to defend myself. First, birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and conservative columnists gotta indulge their schadenfreude about the sorry plight of the Democratic party. It’s what we do.

Second, of course the GOP is a mess (although I would remind liberals that it is better to be a majority party with problems than a minority party with problems). Congressmen are hanging out in K-Street warrens like addicts in 19th-century opium dens–but instead of Chinese dudes passing out pipes, there are lobbyists handing out checks, golf trips, and other prizes from behind Curtain No. 2 on Let’s Make a Deal. The Contract With America that brought the Republicans to power more than ten years ago is a distant blur in the GOP’s rearview mirror. Smaller, competent, and restrained government has been sacrificed to the new coalition of Republican rent-seekers.

Compassionate conservatism may have had some intellectual rigor when it was the stuff of egghead journals and think-tank conferences, but under Bush it has always been a marketing strategy designed to justify spending vast sums of money. This shattering of the GOP’s at-least-nominal commitment to limited government has not only resulted in a bidding war between Congress and the White House on how “best” to expand government, it has also caused philosophical incontinence on the right.

I’m less critical of Bush’s handling of the war on terror, but there, too, one certainly needn’t struggle to the point of herniation to find mistakes.

Third, Republicans and conservatives aren’t the same thing. This distinction seems lost on lots of people, including cable television bark-show bookers and partisan Democrats and Republicans alike. To a principled conservative, it is bad news when the Democrats lurch to the left, even if it makes the Democrats less likely to win elections. Why? Because when the Democrats move left, so do the Republicans.

In American politics, when one party moves left or right, the political center of gravity moves that way too. Bill Clinton, whatever his flaws, moved his party to the right. His triangulation infuriated Republicans because it is always vexing when someone steals your lunch. Democrats despise Bush’s compassionate conservatism for similar reasons. A Republican president promising to “leave no child behind” annoys Democrats as much as Clinton’s denouncing of Sista Soulja irked Republicans. When the Bush presidency is over, it will be more obvious in hindsight how much he moved the GOP to the left–by making the nanny state bipartisan.

It all boils down to what matters to you most. As a conservative, the extent I root for the GOP depends entirely on how successful it is in moving the political climate of the country toward fiscal restraint, limited government, and cultural decency. Single-issue voters understand this point best: Pro-lifers would dearly love to break the GOP monopoly on opposing abortion, just as abortion-rights supporters dream of the day when both parties are pro-choice. Many conservatives, including yours truly, would have agonized over a choice between a reliably pro-war Democrat and George W. Bush in 2004, particularly if judicial appointments weren’t so important.

The point, dear liberals, is that some conservatives who criticize the Democrats or offer them advice do so not solely to salt wounds, but in the hope that someday we will have a real choice on Election Day–and not between the lesser of two evils.

(c) 2006 Tribune Media Services


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