WHAT A DIFFERENCE A WORD MAKES
To many of us, the President’s second inaugural speech on Monday was a magnificent restatement of bedrock American values.
Yet, to others, it was nothing but a call for unbridled liberalism and a sharp stick in the eye of conservatives. House Speaker John Boehner even went so far as to say that the President, with his naked appeal for a liberal agenda, was trying to relegate the Republican Party to the dustbin of history. I would suggest that the Republican Party is doing a good enough job on its own in that regard, without the President’s help, but that’s another matter.
The word “liberal” is key to this basic disagreement, of course, and what a difference a word makes. In its classic political sense, liberalism is a movement that supports such ideas such as free and fair elections, civil rights, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free trade, and private property.
But, about 40-50 years ago, that term was hijacked and became alternately synonymous with godless, pot-smoking peaceniks, free-love advocates, dropouts, welfare addicts, and, in general, people who had no respect for basic American values such as God, the American flag, and fiscal responsibility. The transformation was breathtaking in its swiftness.
I’ll never forget the comment a colleague made to me, probably 30 years ago, if not longer. We were talking politics when he looked at me quizzically and said: “I don’t get it. You’re a family man who goes to church regularly, and yet you call yourself a liberal. How can that be?” I looked at him just as quizzically and realized that the liberalism which I cherished and honored as the soul of the Democratic Party was in for tough sledding ahead.
And, indeed, it has been a tough time. To the point that when the President gives an inaugural address, highlighting core values anchored in the U.S. Constitution and in our Judeo-Christian heritage, they are dismissed by conservatives as just another attempt by big-spending liberals to foist its bloated agenda on responsible Americans.
Yet, in the area of government spending where Democrats are accused of being “big spenders” and fiscally irresponsible, it’s interesting to note that when Democratic President Bill Clinton left office in 2001, he bequeathed to the country a fiscal surplus. And, under this Democratic President, Barack Obama, the increase in spending has grown more slowly than under any president since President Eisenhower.
Conservative vs. Liberal? The true record, versus the campaign rhetoric, makes a mockery of our political labels.
It seems to me that if conservatism stands for preserving the best in our tradition, as the word indicates, it should stand primarily for American values as old as the Scriptures and as venerable as the Constitution. Values such as equal opportunity, equal pay for equal work, taking care of the poor and most vulnerable in our society. If it stands only for a Darwinian, free enterprise system where the rich get rich and the poor get poorer, and people in between are barely making it, it makes you wonder what fundamental, enduring values the GOP is trying to preserve except for its own continued existence.