Washington -- "We stand at a crossroads," said the president last week. He should look in all four directions in hope of finding speech writers who will avoid such tropes, lest he soon find himself standing at crossroads where "the winds of change are blowing."
But, then, winds may not blow in the fourth dimension where the president wants to stand. "I believe," he said in Dallas, "this is a time of such profound change that we need a dynamic center that is not in the middle of what is left and right but that is way beyond it."
Well, just follow the yellow brick road until you reach this "way beyond." But remember this: A politician who says political categories such as the left-right continuum and labels such as "liberal" and "conservative" are anachronistic (last week the president called them "defunct") probably finds them distasteful because he is at an awkward spot on the continuum and is accurately described by an inconvenient label.
"Ideological purity is for partisan extremists," said the president, adding, "This is no time for ideological extremism." It seems that Bill Clinton plans to run in 1996 the way Lyndon Johnson ran in 1964 against Barry Goldwater. With a cooperative press making a political mountain out of a molehill called the John Birch Society, and with Goldwater saying such shocking things as that perhaps the Tennessee Valley Authority could be privatized, "extremism" was a Johnson theme.
A story told at the time -- perhaps apocryphal, but indicative -- was that a journalist conducting on-the-street interviews asked an elderly woman how she intended to vote. Against Goldwater, she said heatedly: He wants to get rid of TV. No, no, explained the journalist, Goldwater wants to get rid of TVA. "Well," replied the woman, unmoved, "I'm not taking any chances."
The charge of "extremism" seemed to work in 1964, so in 1966 California's Gov. Pat Brown rejoiced when Republicans gave him the opponent he craved, Ronald Reagan, a conservative too "extreme" to be elected. Fourteen years later the Carter White House, for the same reason, wanted Republicans to nominate Reagan.
Today White House attempts to sow fear about "extremism," meaning the House "Contract," are complicated by 2,971 facts. The 10 Contract pledges involved final passage votes on 31 items. Democrats cast a total of 2,971 "yes" votes in the 31 instances. That is an average of 95.8 each time, which is 47
percent of House Democrats. Are almost half the House Democrats "extremists?"
To a casual listener to today's political rhetoric, the basic political argument might seem less like a contest between extremists and moderates than between convinced conservatives and emulative conservatives. The emulative conservatives -- the president and his supporters -- are trumpeting their desire to shrink government employment, restrain spending, enact "tough" crime legislation, rethink affirmative action, curb regulations, wield a line-item veto and cut taxes.
But emulative conservatives frequently get the tonality wrong, as when the president, praising the idea of a tax cut, says: "But we also have to choose what kind of tax break. Shall we just put money in people's pockets, or shouldn't we. . . ."
Hold it. The word "put" is a dead giveaway of an unconservative mentality. The money is not the government's to put into the pockets of the people who earned it. The question is: Should the government leave more of it there?
In his zeal to appropriate conservative themes, the president occasionally becomes somewhat opaque, as with this: "My administration is the only one in 30 years to run an operating surplus." What he means is that for the first time since the 1960s the government is taking in slightly more in revenues than it spends on "government programs." Which means government is running what is called "a non-interest surplus." Which means revenues are slightly larger than government spending -- aside from spending on interest to service the national debt.
That is rather a large "aside from." It comprises about 15 percent of the budget. However, the "operating" or "non-interest" surplus is indicative of the fact that the government's programmatic activism -- its metabolism, so to speak -- already is remarkably low. At least it is low relative to the traditional aspirations of "liberalism" or "the left." Those labels are not "defunct," but what they denote is anemic.
George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.