by Michael Bowen

Gandhi would be worried. These days, putting a liberal and a conservative in the same room would cause any advocate of non-violence to reconsider. Wouldn't they just start throwing things at each other? Introduce into the conversation a third person -- one who's non-political by choice -- and fireworks are sure to ensue.

We invited three such people to Inlander HQ last week, just to see if we could find any areas of agreement. In one corner, ladies and gentlemen, Tom Keefe, chair of the Spokane County Democrats. In the other corner, Jon Wyss, vice-chair of the Spokane County Republicans. And standing just outside the ring, Pauline Riley, general manager and wine steward at Niko's Greek Restaurant downtown, representing all those apolitical folks who distrust America's current political process.

But just when we expected a brawl, a civil conversation broke out.

For starters, Tom, how can anyone call himself a liberal these days?

"The word has lost its meaning in all the name-calling," says Keefe. "I was raised to believe that the kind of social progressive liberalism that marked the 20th century, especially under presidents like FDR, is responsible for bringing about the broadest, deepest middle class the world has ever known.

"I don't think liberals wake up believing in big government," he continues. "Liberals believe that there are big problems that crop up in a massive, complex society. Some of them can be solved in the private sector and some can't, which is why you need government. Social Security, which is the most successful government intervention in the history of the world, has by now allowed a couple of generations of seniors not to wind up living on the streets.

"What I don't think we should ever let go of, whether liberal or conservative, is a healthy skepticism about government at every level," Keefe concludes. "You need to constantly force government to justify itself."

What are Wyss's reasons for being a conservative? He thinks government is too big, naturally: "I don't think it is the government's place to tell me where I can spend my money," he says. "Take Social Security. It was great when it went into place. But there are some problems with it now."

Congress, says Wyss, "can borrow against it now, and they don't really want to make changes in it, because it's money they can use in the general fund budget. That's why I think privatization of Social Security -- not all of it, but at least 1 percent or 2 percent of a person's income, if they choose to do that -- is a good idea. But politicians in D.C. are going to look at that and say, 'That's 2 percent less money that we can play with.'"

Discussion turns to the 1960s, another divisive era about which liberals and conservatives typically hold divergent views. Back then, Keefe reminds us, public interests and private interests -- conservatives and liberals, too -- came to agreement in an unusual way: "Nixon was elected in '68 as an anti-war candidate, and he brought in the New Federalism," says Keefe. "If you want to talk about liberalism and whether it's alive, Richard Nixon was probably the last pure federalist with a liberal agenda. The Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act -- those things all came out of the Nixon administration."

Wyss jumps on the mention of the ESA as an example of rampant liberalism. "With other species of fish," he asks, "hatchery fish are raised and released into the wild all the time -- so why is it any different with salmon?"

Wild salmon and hatchery salmon are genetically the same, Wyss notes, yet environmentalists insist on their difference. Yet when it comes to stem-cell research, the stem cells are genetically identical to humans -- and yet liberals decry the Bush administration for thinking it appropriate to limit such research.

"I believe that Congress ought to hold hearings to determine if the ESA is outdated," says Keefe, apparently offering up a shred of common ground. "But because of the polarization in Washington and because of the Sierra Club and the Builders Association, both of which have huge political action committees. You don't get it."

This is exactly why I want to stay out of politics," says Riley. Debate over fine points of the law, which amounts to nothing because of special interests, is off-putting to her and millions of voters like her.

"I always stood back from it, not wanting to be involved with it, because I'm more of a fence-sitter anyway," she says. "And I've never understood how someone can hate so much just because of another person's opinion."

Riley is disaffected from politics because "politicians say that they are for the people -- but with special interests, we can see that it's always about them. You elect them to represent you, and they really don't -- it's who's pulling their strings. They're really just puppets. And we make them that way."

It's not that she refuses to participate in politics altogether. "I will vote," she says, but adds that she usually votes against candidates, "against [those] whom I don't want to see in office." And she admits that she will often vote based purely on gender, voting for a woman "if for no other reason than that somebody's got to."

Riley understands the apathy of the MTV generation. "They're apathetic because they look around at what's happening in the world -- I remember feeling that way -- and thinking, 'What does it matter? I'm not even going to be alive when I'm 30.'"

Yet Wyss says that, on the contrary, the threat of terrorism has galvanized young people to vote. He notes that after 9/11, at Gonzaga, the Young Republicans and Young Democrats each experienced a fourfold increase in their numbers.

When it comes to political participation, Keefe is similarly optimistic. "Polls have found that the vast majority of people who do vote do so out of a sense of civic duty -- not out of a desire to grind a hot stick in somebody else's eye by voting against them," he says.

For Keefe, civic participation matters because it strikes back at any unjust status quo: "I always say, the people who have too much power right now always want you to think that your vote doesn't matter."

All three agree that, in the attempt to generate more voting, experiments such as same-day registration and motor-voter registration are worthwhile.

In the spirit of such amity, it seemed like the right time to seek out other instances of compromise. Does Wyss, for example, have any liberal positions?

"Although I'm pro-life, I don't think you can restrict a woman's right to choose," says Wyss. "I don't think you can walk up to any female and say, 'I'm going to take away this right.'"

Does Roe v. Wade, then, provide a reasonable compromise?

"I think it does," Wyss agrees. "I don't want to speak for the Party, but just for myself as a conservative, I think abortion is OK when it is in cases of rape, incest or the life of the mother."

At this point, Keefe interjected: "I wish we could get you into the Republican primary for Congress," he said, "because all three of them believe in an absolute ban."

Well, what about Keefe? Does he hold conservative opinions on any issues?

"My children would say I hold way too many conservative positions," he laughs.

But Keefe points to his approval of personal responsibility and his opposition to deficit spending as two of his conservative beliefs -- along with (not surprisingly, from a man who ran against George Nethercutt) his advocacy of term limits.

"Look at the professional-ization of our political system," Keefe says. "The first time Tom Foley ran for Congress, he spent about $60,000. This time [in the 5th District], the starting ante just to get in the race was about $1.6 million. The last time [Warren] Magnuson ran for re-election, he spent about $1.2 million. Patty Murray and George Nethercutt are both going to spend about $10 million."

As a result, says Keefe, "I really think we ought to have term limits. I really don't think you should spend lifetimes accumulating seniority and power. The power of incumbency is such that we now have a 98 percent reelection rate in the U.S. House of Representatives - the Soviet Politburo had a lower reelection rate than that."

Both Riley and Wyss laughed in agreement, but the spirit of amity couldn't be expected to last forever. Anything else they might want to discuss? Riley immediately brought up same-sex marriage: "It just blows me away that our president would suddenly make a statement on that. Why did that all of a sudden become a big deal?"

Because it's a wedge issue for Republicans, or, as Keefe says, a "base generator" for them.

Wyss disagreed, mentioning recent developments at the state level. And we were off to another round of political debate.

Wyss cited the 71 percent vote in the Missouri referendum to ban same-sex marriage, and he advanced an economic argument, too. Even if two gay people simply have a civil union, says Wyss, "as a business owner, if that union is recognized in one state and not another, who's going to pay for that health care coverage? 'Well, I have a civil union.' Does that company then have to pay for health care coverage for that partner?"

"Well," asked Keefe, "how would you like to be gay? Wouldn't you resent having to subsidize the health care coverage of a married person who gets not only their spouse but all their little kids covered too?"

Wyss pointed out that married couples with children already receive certain benefits that a single person doesn't.

Keefe responded that "Honest heterosexuals who want to oppose gay marriage ought to be prepared to give up the dozens of tax advantages that they have. And I would take that as an honest argument."

Once again, the sparks were flying: Business as usual in the world of political debate. Some issues, we learned, could be finessed; others were just red meat. Some look forward to political dogfights; some look on, bewildered and demoralized. But in the end, our experiment seemed to prove that you can lock three highly opinionated Americans in a room for 90 minutes without ever needing to call an ambulance.

Publication date: 08/19/04

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.