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Fri, Feb. 21

Left vs. right contempt creates havoc

WASHINGTON Liberals have so little respect for conservatives these days that people on the left are genuinely astonished when people on the right have principled disagreements with each other.

The left assumes that the right marches in lockstep under orders from the White House.

Conservatives have so little respect for liberals that they see every liberal action as inspired by hatred of President Bush, opposition to religion and contempt for people in the heartland.

The paradoxical result of this mutual contempt is that each side simultaneously underestimates and overestimates the other. As a result, people see current political arrangements as permanent and miss the possibilities of political change even when change is happening.

Many assume that the right has more coherence and discipline than it actually does. That means people exaggerate its dominance in our politics and insufficiently appreciate its intellectual energy. Few outside its ranks acknowledge how many different philosophical streams feed the conservative movement.

Many widely assume the left to be in a state of a perpetual disarray, inspired mostly by knee-jerk responses such as political correctness or radical secularism. For at least a decade now, conservatives have gleefully called their political foes reactionary liberals whose main task, they say, is the preservation of a New Deal-Great Society status quo.

Since the 2004 election gave narrow but firm control of Washingtons two elected branches of government to a Republican Party committed to conservatism, the dominant political narrative has highlighted the rights effectiveness and the lefts fecklessness.

Yet its impossible to dismiss the liberals opposition to many of Bushs policies his Social Security program and his tax cuts for the wealthy in particular as a blind rejection of whatever this controversial president proposes.

If a single principle unites the left side of the political spectrum, it is a belief that an energetic government can effectively use progressive taxation to ensure the poor, the unlucky and the elderly against undue hardship. Bushs embrace of the partial privatization of Social Security has thus united liberals and created a sense of momentum unusual for the left during the Bush years.

For all these reasons, the split among conservatives over the Terri Schiavo case and Bushs difficulties in selling his Social Security plan should not have been surprising. Schiavos tragedy has underscored the delicate intellectual balancing act involved in holding conservatism together. The bill to force Schiavos case into federal court in the hope of overturning decisions by state judges and forcing a return of her feeding tube was bound to lead to a confrontation among different kinds of principled conservatives. An ancient and often religiously rooted commitment to the inviolability of life crashed head-on into the commitment of one brand of conservatism to state and local control and a more libertarian brands wariness of government meddling in private decisions.

Even Bush, the most skilled mediator among conservative factions since Ronald Reagan, has been unable to keep peace on the right in this instance.

The privatization debate has not only strengthened the left. It also brought the economically libertarian, market-oriented faction of the right front-and-center, to the discomfort of many traditionalist conservatives.

The traditionalists main concern is the preservation of traditional values, including family values, and Social Security violates none of these. Indeed, Gary Bauer, a leading social conservative, argued in 1997 that Social Security provides special compensations for couples who devote themselves to rearing children during their active years. In a New York Times article opposing privatization, Bauer asked: Why do we think the nation will be better off by forcing workers to put their money into stock rather than, say, spending it on rearing children? Its hard to imagine a more thoroughly conservative critique of privatization.

It would be premature to predict that the rise of new issues in the first quarter of 2005 marks the beginning of a conservative crack-up, a phrase invoked by conservative writer R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. to describe an earlier period of conservative malaise. The Bush administration has been unusually successful in managing the nations political agenda and has regularly succeeded in uniting its own camp and dividing liberals by pushing the issues of terrorism and national security to the fore.

E-mail E.J. Dionne at

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