RHETORIC vs. REALITY….I had lunch with Pandagon co-blogger Ezra Klein a few days ago ? he’s a fellow Irvinite when he’s not studying amongst the redwoods up at UC Santa Cruz ? and I mentioned something that’s been noodling in my head for a few weeks: we liberals may be feeling pretty beat up lately, but if you listen closely it’s pretty clear that we’ve decisively won virtually the entire public debate with conservatives. The right wing likes to talk a lot of smack about how the country is going their way, but it’s really not true even after 20 years of the Reagan/Gingrich/Bush revolution.

To see what I mean, consider the conservative agenda as represented by major Bush administration initiatives. They want to make life easier for big corporations by pushing tort reform and whittling away at environmental standards. They want to promote vouchers and private schools by implementing absurd standards for public schools in the No Child Left Behind Act. They want to reduce and privatize Medicare and Social Security. They invaded Iraq in order to install a friendlier government and give us a base of power in the center of the Middle East.

But that’s not what they say. What they say is that tort reform is designed to minimize frivolous lawsuits (though capping payments patently does nothing of the kind). The “Clean Air” and “Healthy Forests” initiatives strengthen our commitment to cleaning up the environment. NCLB will make our public schools better and more accountable. Their Medicare and Social Security proposals are designed to strengthen the system, not scale it back. The Iraq war was for humanitarian reasons ? and we’re going to get out as soon as we can.

To hear George Bush talk, you’d almost think you were listening to the reincarnation of FDR, and the fact that he says this stuff is a tacit admission that talking about conservative goals openly and honestly would be an electoral disaster. Most people want cleaner air and water, they want strong public schools, they like Social Security and Medicare, and even after 9/11 they don’t want long wars or messy occupations.

What’s more, on a variety of social issues conservatives have either made no real progress ? abortion and gun control, for example ? or actually lost ground ? gay rights and drug laws.

Off the top of my head, the two biggest exceptions to this are race, where conservatives genuinely seem to have increased support for their positions, and taxes, which they’ve succeeded in making practically taboo. (Wes Clark suggests raising taxes on millionaires to a bit more than half of what it was when Ronald Reagan took office and it’s tantamount to Stalinism.) Still, even here time is not on their side: eventually voters are going to have to choose between higher taxes and cutting back on Social Security and Medicare, and there’s little doubt that when the crunch comes it’s not going to be the entitlement programs that suffer.

When liberals talk about their goals they talk about what they really want. When George Bush talks, he hides his goals behind surprisingly liberal rhetoric. What does that say about which direction the country is really going? And how long do you think conservatives can keep it up before their carefully erected facade disintegrates?

POSTSCRIPT: Ezra has similar thoughts here and here.

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