Some and all

In the simple logic of many pundits, you’re either a liberal or a conservative. Conservatives reject anything that’s “liberal” and liberals likewise reject–or should reject–any utterance of a “conservative.” In the simple logic of George Will, anything that is not a complete government giveaway to the poor with no strings attached (or a thievish taxing of the rich) is “conservative,” no matter how many liberals support it (or variations of it). Since any such program is conservative, any liberal who does not reject it outright is not challenging conservativism. And thus the failure to challenge the conservative program is a victory, nay a “triumph” for conservativism, and a defeat for “liberalism.” Take the following for instance:

John Kerry’s campaign shows that liberalism remains merely reactive, and reconciled to many of conservatism’s triumphs. Kerry complains about No Child Left Behind and the USA Patriot Act but does not call for repealing either. For all of Kerry’s histrionic sorrows about “the rich” being too laxly taxed, his proposal to raise the top income tax rate from 35 percent to 39.6 percent accepts Ronald Reagan’s revolution in lowering the rate from 70 percent. And Kerry has not proposed even a mild modification of modern conservatism’s largest legislative achievement, the 1996 welfare reform that repealed the 1935 Social Security Act’s lifetime entitlement to welfare.

There is an odd categorical logic to this claim. The first sentence–which is the conclusion of the argument–claims that *All* “liberalism” (whatever that means, see previous posts) is reactive. The evidence for this is a series of points about *some* of Kerry’s positions. Never mind the fact that Dennis Kucinich would justly recoil at the suggestion that Kerry is “liberal.” Notice how the strength of the conclusion (*Liberalism remains merely reactive*) rests on a narrowly selected range of domestic issues–the No Child Left Behind Act, the USA Patriot Act, taxation, and welfare reform. On Will’s formulation, Kerry’s stated campaign positions range from measured agreement to silence.

For Will’s conclusion about “liberalism” to follow he would need to do more than this. First, he would have to take into consideration that Kerry in the current election has the role of *challenger*. As challenger, his posture might seem “reactive,” because, in fact, that’s just what one might expect of a candidate who is challenging a President who has had four years with a friendly Congress and Supreme Court. Whatever one’s position on the current President, Bush has left his opponent with much to respond or react to.

Second, Will would need to examine a greater range of domestic issues. Even a poorly informed voter knows that Kerry has made concrete policy proposals regarding health care, education, and the environment that go beyond simple reactions or slight modifications of Republican or conservative achievements. The sample of issues here examined, in other words, does not warrant the universal categorical assertion that all liberalism is reactive.

Third, and most importantly, Will needs to show why it must be the case that Kerry must completely reject every policy proposal vaguely associated with conservative politicians. Perhaps, one might suggest, Kerry agrees with some, but not all, of the policy in question. Or perhaps he even agrees with it entirely. His failure to reject it outright does not necessarily constitute a victory for conservatives, and consequently render liberals reactive, it might be a victory for those who do not confine their minds to the simplistic and vaguely defined labels of punditology.

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