Suzanne Fields

Bickering, not debating, is what modern politicians do best. Consider the Thursday night Republican debate in South Carolina. Fred Thompson accused Mike Huckabee of threatening the Reagan coalition. Did not, the governor retorted. Mitt Romney accused John McCain of not feeling the pain of laid-off Michigan autoworkers. Did too, the senator replied. Rudy Giuliani does too appreciate the surge in Iraq as much as anyone else. Is this a debate, or a grade-school shouting match?

The Democrats aren't such serious grown-ups, either. Hillary Clinton, campaigning in Nevada, suggested the debate over immigration is about sex, not law and demographics. "No woman is illegal," she told a group of Hispanic voters. (Men may still be illegal.) Barack Obama turned to losers past to shore up his campaign, gushing over an endorsement by John Kerry.

But it's the Republicans who are wrestling with an identity crisis. Mike Huckabee, the surprise of the campaign, took considerable fire in the Thursday-night debate, forced into a defense of raising taxes over his 12 years as governor of Arkansas. "What I did was," he said, "I governed." To many Republican ears, that sounds too much like a liberal Democrat making excuses.

But what, exactly, is a "liberal" and a "conservative"? Who's "true" and who's not? Different definitions proliferate at different times. Definitions can be misleading because, as Mark Twain observed, "all generalizations are false, including this one." Russell Kirk, one of the founding fathers of modern American conservatism, always said he was conservative because he was a liberal, with no fixed ideology but a strong sense of right and wrong. Those are almost fightin' words in a saloon-like brawl.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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