As is typical at this time of year, Virginia's political landscape has become relatively quiet. But in the absence of big issues to debate, we can puzzle over smaller matters.

* State Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert III (D-Richmond) was shocked to learn recently that last year's freshman classes at U.S. medical schools included only 70 black men. In response to this appalling statistic, he persuaded Virginia's five historically black universities to participate in a minority recruitment exchange program with the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Virginia's minority students interested in medicine will be tutored in math and science by Nebraska. As commendable as the program might be, its necessity is shameful. Why should Virginia's minority students need remedial education?

Lambert, who is black and an ophthalmologist, got into medical school years ago -- when the institutional obstacles for minorities were much higher. He also obviously received a K-12 education then that prepared him for the rigors of college and medical school. Will the day ever come that politicians are sufficiently outraged by the handicapping of black students that they will be willing to incur the political disfavor of the education lobby?

* Virginia's higher taxes went into effect this month with no discernible public outcry. But imagine if Virginians were billed for their taxes, if instead of having taxes withheld from their paychecks or hidden in the costs of good and services, they had to write checks every month to cover the costs of various governments. How much sympathy would they have then for extravagant government spending?

The state legislature, led by then-Gov. Jim Gilmore, began a phaseout of the hated car tax. Perhaps all taxes should be paid in a similar fashion. Virginians doubtlessly would pay closer attention to how their money was being spent if they saw how government drained their checkbooks.

* A proposal to name a new Stafford County high school after Ronald Reagan is proving divisive. As the deep thinkers say, "Oh, please." Reagan's legacy transcends ideology: His policies helped end the Cold War. Students at the new school won't have to live under the threat of nuclear annihilation. How partisan does one have to be not to appreciate that achievement?

Conservatives didn't howl when Republican President George W. Bush proposed renaming the Justice Department building for Democrat Robert F. Kennedy. So if liberals can be lionized, why can't conservative icons?

* What does it say about Virginia's changing political climate that this state -- which no Democratic presidential nominee has carried in 40 years -- is considered winnable by John Kerry? Most of the state remains solidly Republican; Northern Virginia's Democratic enclaves are skewing the polls. But on what issues are this area's liberals actually liberal?

According to the dictionary, to be "liberal" is having, expressing or following views or policies that favor the freedom of individuals to act or express themselves in a manner of their own choosing. Yet today's Democrats crave regulation and regimentation. They want government dictating the minutiae of ordinary life: where your child sits in the car; whether you wear a bike helmet or a seatbelt; and whether you are allowed to pick a berry off a bush in a public park.

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