During close to two decades of column writing, I've heard the question a hundred or more times: "Are you a liberal, a moderate, or a conservative?"
And my answer has always been: No.
For three reasons. First, I read the question as an invitation to dig in at some particular point on the political spectrum, and I don't want to do that. I'd rather be free to examine issues as they arise and let the facts lead me where they will . If I decide that I am, for instance, a political moderate, my fear is that instead of asking what makes sense, I'll find myself asking: What is the moderate position on this issue?
Second, I really don't know what the answer is. In fact, I am, depending on the issue at hand, all three.
And third, the question never really interested me -- until now.
I've just read a piece by Dinesh D'Souza in the winter issue of the conservative Policy Review in which the author lists me with such certified conservatives as William F. Buckley Jr., George F. Will and William Safire, sensing (correctly) that I would "cringe at being identified with the right wing."
D'Souza, who is editor of Prospect magazine at Princeton University, said one thing that I found complimentary: "He is open to conservative thought in a way that few liberal writers are." But he ended with a notion that, I confess, unsettled me and left me thinking about the question that hadn't really interested me: "Even if he doesn't quite see it, he is a liberal at the exit gate of liberalism."
Is he correct? I don't know. But I do know why I have devoted more attention in recent months to ideas that are generally considered conservative. The reason is that while I am personally attracted to liberals (I still think of them as society's "good guys"), I am attracted professionally to fresh ideas, promising new ways of looking at the problems of the society.
And the fact is, that, with precious few exceptions ("comparable worth" being the most obvious one), most of the new ideas are coming from the right. Whether it's "enterprise zones" (sensible but too limited to be of much help), "Star Wars" weapons systems (too costly, too destablizing and too conducive to spreading the arms race into space to be useful except as an arms-control bargaining chip) or tax credits for investments in new businesses in economically depressed areas (potentially very helpful), the ideas are the brainchildren of the right.
The left, on the other hand, seems to take the position that it arrived at Truth sometime in the 1960s and need not waste time rethinking problems and solutions.
Liberal think tanks, unlike their counterparts on the left, seldom produce ideas that merit the label "new." Can you think of a problem, domestic or international, for which you would ask Walter Mondale to propose a solution? Even Gary Hart, whose unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination was built on the theme of "new ideas," really didn't offer any.
Not that the conservative proposals are necessarily persuasive. Some (proposed amendments for a balanced budgets and school prayer) make no sense at all. Some (reopening the settled issue of school desegregation) seem calculated to create needless strife. Some (the "opportunity society") are promising on the surface but must await detail before judgment becomes possible.
But even bad new ideas are, for an opinion columnist, more interesting than tired old ideas, especially when even the partisans of those ideas acknowledge that they haen't done the job.
Does all this make me "a liberal at the exit gate of liberalism"? The answer, for me and, I suspect, for a lot of us, depends on the ability of liberals to come up with programs and proposals for solving society's problems.