Partisanship has a funny way of making small differences seem huge. Listen to Howard Dean and you'd think that Republicans are orcs while Democrats are the saviors of Middle-earth. Similarly, in the 1990s, Republicans - including, at times, yours truly - talked about Bill Clinton as if he were the worst thing ever spewed from the bowels of Mordor.
Many have noted that this partisan rage is a result of the tyranny of small differences. Clinton's New Democrat rhetoric made him sound like an old Republican. And George W. Bush's "compassionate conservative" boilerplate made him sound like, well, a New Democrat.
Of course there are important differences between the parties. But those differences are mutating because the dogmas on which they rest are shifting like tectonic plates.
Recently, my friend David Brooks wrote in the New York Times about how he thinks that many of the president's problems stem from the fact that conservatism is changing under his feet. "We're seeing a conservatism that emphasizes freedom give way to a conservatism that emphasizes authority," Brooks wrote. Ronald Reagan's conservatism aimed to free up individual initiative and beat back the forces of governmental "sclerosis." But times change, says Brooks, and today "the chief problem is not sclerosis but disorder." From immigration to terrorism to downsizing, people aren't afraid of bureaucrats anymore. They want bureaucrats to impose order and provide security, Rudy Giuliani style.
Brooks is hardly alone in his yearning to redefine conservatism (and he's not exactly a dispassionate chronicler of the phenomenon either). Fred Barnes, Daniel Casse, Marvin Olasky and others have tried to defend Bush's style of conservatism with phrases such as "strong government conservatism" or the less felicitous "big government conservatism." But the evolution of conservatism is only half the story. Liberalism has undergone a dramatic change as well.
Just as many conservatives are defenestrating their anti-state dogma when it comes to social policy, many liberals are changing their minds on important issues. Whatever her motivations, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has certainly positioned herself outside stereotypical liberal groupthink. She talks about securing borders, banning flag burning and staying the course in Iraq. And she's hardly alone. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the Democrats' Great Black Hope, has started courting evangelical Christians - once the worst demons in the left's Hieronymus Bosch vision of the American right. This week, Obama even defended school prayer and the "under God" portion of the Pledge of Allegiance.
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