Defending the `L-Word'

THE report from the front - the halls of Congress - shows the early partisan skirmishes just about to burst into all-out rhetorical war.

The Democrats have shown they are just as capable of employing the sniping tactics used so successfully last term by Republicans. Democratic Reps. David Bonior, Barney Frank, and Patricia Schroeder can eloquently raise objections and questions, and express their moral outrage. House Democrats will try to exploit GOP weaknesses -

such as the lingering questions over Speaker Newt Gingrich's book deal with media mogul Rupert Murdoch. In the Senate, Robert Byrd has showed his mastery of the chamber's rules, holding up the balanced-budget amendment with ``Byrd-lock,'' in the words of majority leader Robert Dole.

Meanwhile, Republicans are being urged by conservative purists to refuse compromises on the ``Contract With America,'' even if it means that some worthy reforms die. Should that happen, public opinion will decide whether one party, or both, is to blame.

Beneath this tactical battle, though, is the need for a deeper debate. Conservative ideas are finally being heard in Congress and treated with respect as valid intellectual positions. This was long overdue.

But now the same effort must be undertaken on the other side. When will Democratic politicians begin to utter the dreaded ``L-word''?

Liberalism is a valid, time-honored political philosophy. It has a track record of accomplishment. But those who once claimed to espouse it have allowed conservatives to mangle the word - equating it with high taxes, waste, bureaucracy, and oppressive government. Will the next generation know only that definition?

Some liberals - mostly those with no political capital to lose -

have begun to speak up. But other voices are needed. President Clinton is not likely to be one of them. Perhaps rightly, he has chosen to stand astride the political center and play the judicious compromiser.

American democracy benefits from hearing strong, articulate voices on both sides of the political argument. Who will defend the liberal philosophy and assert how it offers compelling solutions to current problems? Sen. Edward Kennedy began last week, arguing that Democrats must ``vigorously oppose'' conservative ideas and not be ``pale carbon copies.'' The last thing this country needs, he said, ``is two Republican parties.'' That's right.

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