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An updated liberalism gains more acceptance


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 22, 1999

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WASHINGTON -- Just five years after the vaunted Republican revolution put conservatives firmly in control of Congress, there are signs that suggest the political center on Capitol Hill may be turning leftward. Consider these examples:

President Clinton vetoed a massive tax cut, and the Republican congressional leadership promptly gave up on the proposal, which had been a key element in the GOP plan to reduce the size of the federal government.

The president and Republicans combined forces to protect funding for Social Security, the cornerstone for what conservatives prefer to call "the welfare state."

Some Republicans, alone with many Democrats, championed an increase in the minimum wage, something the GOP has opposed as being anti-business.

A movement to forgive the debts of underdeveloped nations has gained support among Republican conservatives, including Sen. Connie Mack, as well as Democrats.

For those who have been anticipating that peace and prosperity would spark a resurgence of liberalism in government, these are the first indications the political pendulum is beginning to turn away from the conservatism that has dominated American politics for the last two decades.

"Liberalism is highly correlated with a booming economy," says Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University. "It is the equivalent of the Volvo or Saab you think of buying when times are flush. During hard times, the country returns to the more conservative course, like buying a Chevrolet."

Ginsberg's point is widely accepted as a historical truism. But some liberal scholars go a step further. Writing in the New York Times last week, Sean Wilentz, a Princeton University history professor, credited Clinton with causing this change by championing traditionally conservative causes, such as welfare reform, and thus updating the Democratic tradition of liberalism in a way that has made it more acceptable.

Conservative thinkers caution that this trend could easily be misunderstood. But they acknowledge that, as William Connelly, a politics professor at Washington and Lee University, says: Something is stirring in American politics that is forcing Congress to reject the old, strictly ideological ways of thinking about issues.

David Winston, a GOP pollster who was a top political strategist for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, thinks politicians are being summoned by the voters to reject all ideology, conservative and liberal.

"It's not liberalism; it's not even ideological," said Winston. "It's a movement to a non-ideological, results-oriented center. You have a country that is very results-focused regarding what they want out of Washington."

In other words, Winston believes Americans are simply fed up with the ideological posturing that has prevented members of Congress from producing practical results, such as reforming Social Security, Medicare and the managed care system.

Connelly views recent developments in Congress as a small step toward compromise between conservatives and liberals.

"I think they (politicians) are learning that to govern they have to be somewhat pragmatic, they have to work with the other side," he said.

Connelly notes that ideology still "means more to the politicians than to the people" and the Congress has very few members, Republicans or Democrats, who want to be known as centrists.

Redistricting has eliminated many House districts that once elected centrists and has, instead, created a majority of districts that are dominated either by conservative Republicans or liberal Democrats. Connelly notes the Northeast supplies Congress with fewer GOP moderates and the South elects fewer conservative Democrats.

Instead of seeking compromise, partisans try to pre-empt the opposition by "stealing" issues. An example of this phenomenon occurred this year when Clinton said in his State of the Union address that he was commited to "saving Social Security first" -- before investing in other programs. Republicans pre-empted him by declaring as untouchable all funds owed to the Social Security trust fund. As Wilentz noted, Clinton has been using this tactic for most of his presidency. The president championed welfare reform only after Republicans made it an issue.

Now Republicans are using Clinton's own tactics to steal his thunder.

Still, there are some members of Congress who continue to seek genuine compromise. In the past year, Republican physicians in the House and Senate broke away from their leadership to forge a compromise with Democrats on a bill to reform the managed care health system.

Another group of lawmakers that has been struggling to find the pragmatic, results-oriented center is the so-called New Democrats, which include Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa. For his part, Davis rejects the notion that liberalism is on the rise.

Davis notes that the net result of the decisions made during the just-concluded session of Congress was to use the budget surplus to pay down the national debt.

"Is that conservative or liberal?" Davis asks. "You tell me. I don't think that is a liberal position."

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