Okay Trent, I’M ONE!

Former Republican Mississippi Senator Trent Lott.
Trust Jon Stewart’s staffers to find the most revealing snips of tape to put on the air. Last night on “The Daily Show,” he showed a clip of one demonstrator outside the Supreme Court building talking about why she opposed Obamacare.

“I’m for freedom!” she said.

Great. She’s probably not for what most people, curling their lip into an Elvis Presley-like sneer, call “politics as usual.”

But she had just performed an act in public that politicians usually love: the impossible-to-disagree-with premise. That’s when politicians pretend to take a stand by asserting a belief so general nobody in the world would disagree. Like being for democracy, justice—or freedom. One famous example: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s litany of reasons to be a Republican in the 2004 Republican National Convention (“If you believe that government should be accountable to the people … then you are a Republican!”)

Well, sure. Schwarzenegger. But what to make of “GOP Ideals that unite—not divide,” the recent Washington Post op-ed by four Republican ex-Senators—Bill Brock, Jack Danforth, Trent Lott, and Don Nickles—writing under the pretense that they can speak frankly? Here’s how they define the “fundamental values … Republicans believe.”

A free people whose strong values are productively engaged in a healthy private sector, not under a heavy and domineering federal government … limited government to keep this a land of unlimited opportunity … a strong national defense to keep our children safe.

What in this pandering and cliché-ridden paragraph makes these views “Republican?” To come up with an answer, you have to imagine the Democratic response. I guess it would sound like this:

Yes, Bill, Jack, Trent, and Don. We Democrats don’t want our people “free.” We want them enslaved. We’d rather have a crumbling private sector, too. And that “heavy and domineering federal government”? Sounds pretty good to us! Finally, what’s with the “strong national defense?” We like what our Socialist President spends—a paltry $600 billion each year! And we certainly don’t care about our kids!

As a Democratic speechwriter, let me lose no time confessing that Democrats use this ridiculous tool of demagogues—even, I am embarrassed to confess, me. It’s still a bad thing to do.

After all, when you describe one side’s belief in a way shared by both, it’s impossible to have meaningful discussion. You might win a few points doing this in a campaign ad. But people who know things count, too. And what sophisticated person would believe Trent Lott’s group is trying to offer candid advice when they start in such a patently false way? With the audience that reads a Wash Post op-ed, Lott’s gang loses—should I say it?— a lott of credibility.

Which is too bad, especially about that issue. What are the differences between Democrats and Republicans? Rational examination of evidence? Where you grow up? What your parents believe? A certain kind of personality?

It’s fascinating. And as it happens, there’s a lot of research about it. Those who want to pursue the question should look at a review of the evidence in a 2006 Psychology Today article (www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200612/the-ideological-animal)for loads of interesting ones, some furiously debated. My favorite, a long meticulously done study that showed kids who developed close relationships with peers and were rated by their teachers as self-reliant, energetic, and … grew up liberal.

Kids who were easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited, and vulnerable at age 3? Conservative!

Okay, maybe I’m biased. But, the study offers reasons, and seems respectable. That doesn’t mean it’s right. But at least it tries to look closely and honestly at what might be true. If you disagree, you can look at what makes the researchers believe and fire back.

And whatever they got right or wrong, there are ways to see where Ds and Rs differ. For example, both sides agree at some level we should limit government, but they draw the line at different places? Where is that line? Shouldn’t we be able to define it?

Unfortunately, that brings us back to health care. Because here, the lines seem so blurred by politics, it makes you wonder what the lines are—or if they exist. For example: the Administration claims that the exchange idea at the heart of the bill came from Republicans. At first glance that seems true. It originated in the brain of Heritage Society big gun Robert Moffit.

But look closer. There’s been a split about this among Republicans for a long time. The Obama people claim too much when they say this is a “Republican” plan. Exchanges were the view of only one species of Republicans. Obamacare actually turns out to be a great way to examine not just where the parties really differ but where the splits are within the parties.

And that makes the 4-way Republican op-ed so discouraging. If they’ve described Republican ideals — I’m one. And if they’re unable to talk honestly about differences out of office how can we get meaningful discussion from people who still have elections to win?

My old boss Lloyd Bentsen had a response he liked when someone asked him about a tough issue.

“Some of my friends are for it. Some of my friends are against it,” he would say. Then he would allow himself a little smile, and say, “I’m for my friends.”

Can’t object to that. But at least Bentsen knew his impossible-to-disagree-with premise was a joke. Seeing the Republican gang of four do the same thing with a collective straight face? Not funny.

Bob Lehrman Former White House Chief Speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, Lehrman has written thousands of speeches for Democratic politicians at the highest levels, as well as for nonprofit heads, corporate CEOs and entertainers.

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