How to talk to a liberal

Posted: Feb 22, 2001 12:00 AM
When I began swooning for George W. Bush during the Republican primaries, my friends warned me that I was going to have to eat my words. It's now a month into his presidency, and I'm even more doe-eyed about Bush than ever. Among other feats, Bush has figured out how to talk to liberals. This has solved one of life's eternal mysteries, like "How high is up?"

The liberal's highly complex and intellectual argument against principled conservatism is this: Republicans are mean. Republicans always figured that since they weren't mean, that should be enough. But the facts were irrelevant. These were devil words muttered by a political cult, not reasoned arguments.

One of the most arresting examples of the sophisticated Republicans Are Mean argument occurred in reference to Pat Buchanan. If you ever actually tuned in to CNN's "Crossfire" when Buchanan was on, he'd be smiling, laughing, telling jokes -- generally while sitting next to a scowling, bitter Bill Press. (In the interest of not only honesty but also irony, I should rush to add that off-air, Bill Press is one of the nicest people on TV.)

But for reasons that only the faithful can understand, it simply became a part of the liberal orthodoxy that Buchanan was an "angry white man." In case any of the cult members missed the memo on Pat being angry, William Schneider used the word "angry" four times to describe either Pat or his supporters in one single short column in the National Journal.

So we knew liberals would not believe their own eyes if what they saw conflicted with their political orthodoxy. Since actual evidence wouldn't suffice, and arguments citing facts and evidence were even more useless, it was difficult for Republicans to know where to begin with these liberals.

This put conservatives at a distinct disadvantage. For the last couple of decades now, name-calling has been the principal argument liberals have deployed against conservative arguments.

If Republicans opposed the National Endowment for the Arts, they were said to hate art. If Republicans opposed the Department of Education, they were said to hate teachers. If Republicans opposed the Environmental Protection Agency, they were said to hate the environment. Opposition to the government spending money on anything was invariably attacked as hatred for the thing money was to be spent on.

What it took George Bush to figure out was that to counter the left's intricate Republicans Are Mean argument, all you had to do was to go around calling yourself nice.

I could have thought about that for 50 years and still have been stumped.

Not only does George Bush's strategy have the virtue of simplicity, but it is also a distinct improvement over the typical Republican method of wooing Democrats, which is to give away the store.

To the contrary, President Bush has been like a runaway train pushing through his campaign promises to support tax cuts, a missile defense system and faith-based social service programs. When one of his conservative Cabinet nominees came under attack and was forced to withdraw, Bush found yet another minority female for the post -- even more conservative than the last.

As a New York Times reporter described Bush's approach to political opponents: "Mr. Bush is a bipartisan love machine." At the same time, his tax cut proposal "does not bow even a millimeter to many Democrats' concerns," and it is not clear "whether all his smooth, sweet talk truly signals any inclination toward ideological flexibility" -- a.k.a., giving away the store.

Admittedly, when Bush first began with the "compassionate conservatism" theme, many of us took umbrage. In a typical soliloquy on "compassionate conservatism," Bush said: "I know this approach has been criticized. But why? Is compassion beneath us? Is mercy below us? Should our party be led by someone who boasts of a hard heart?"

If you didn't happen to be a Democrat, you were likely to sit back scratching your head wondering what the heck Bush was talking about. Who criticizes compassion? Who exactly boasts of having a hard heart? Which Republican candidate maintains compassion is beneath us? Of whom, pray tell, was he speaking?

The answer, of course, was: no one. No real corporeal being, that is. He was referring to Republican ghosts haunting liberal imaginations. Bush treats liberals like small children having their first nightmare: Don't worry, honey, I'll just wave a magic wand and make all the ghosts go away. I'm a compassionate conservative.

And darn if it didn't work. As evidence that it did work, observe that liberals still use their second favorite principled epithet against Republicans: They call Bush dumb -- just like Dwight Eisenhower and that old bumbling guy who won the Cold War. But they don't call Bush mean.

It was always so simple. The mistake Republicans have been making was to treat liberals like adults. It took George Bush to treat them in an age-appropriate manner and start arguing with liberals at their own level.