HoustonChronicle.com
Section: Viewpoints, Outlook

Aug. 23, 2004, 12:51AM

SOUNDING BOARD

Voters not only angry, but unmoved by good fortune

JAMES HOWARD GIBBONS wonders why conservatives take so little joy in their domination of U.S. politics at nearly every level.

By JAMES HOWARD GIBBONS

Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle

As this no-holds-barred election campaign proceeds, American voters are reported to be not only sharply divided but unusually angry. Calls to the Chronicle's editorial page office support both assertions.

Several liberals complained that the paper has become hopelessly right-wing. A host of conservatives suggested in so many words that the Chronicle is now the willing tool of the liberal elite.

All I can say is that both charges cannot be true. There are times when I sympathize with Ambrose Bierce, who defined a conservative as someone who accepts existing ills, while a liberal wishes to replace them with new ones.

I can well understand why liberals are angry. In the last decade they lost power in almost every arena. For four years or longer, Democrats have held no sway in Washington or in Austin.

Liberals have had to stand by helplessly while Congress passed tax cut after tax cut. Businesses generous in their campaign contributions have been able to tailor legislation to their benefit, regardless of what Ralph Nader thought.

But I cannot grasp why conservatives, by and large, take so little joy in all they survey.

The White House, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are in the clutches of politicians who are either extremely conservative or charlatans cleverly and persuasively pretending to be. The Republican Party wields a solid majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, at least when the party's fortunes are on the line.

In Texas, the Republican Party claims every statewide office. In Harris County, it controls the powerful Commissioners Court and every judicial office above justice of the peace.

Business lobbyists have never had it so good. Industrial emissions are now officially countenanced and seen as benign. When government budgets had to be cut, the burden was borne by children's health insurance programs and the like, while corporate subsidies increased. What more could a conservative wish for in a government?

News stories report that the Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry, is leading in key battleground states, but conservatives needn't lose sleep over that. A smear campaign or two, deserved or not, should dispel the danger.

Perhaps conservatives' ill mood derives from the paucity of Bibles in public places. A Christian conservative called last week to complain about the impending removal of a Bible near the Harris County Civil Courthouse. I offered to lend her one of my four, but she would not be comforted. She said the end times were coming and Harris County needed to have a government that was thoroughly Christian.

County Judge Robert Eckels and County Attorney Mike Stafford give every indication they agree with her. But the U.S. Constitution stands in their way in this instance and in others where the majority wishes to trample on the rights of the minority. Vexing, perhaps, but it shouldn't be enraging to a Christian.

Aren't the large tax cuts a source of happiness? Most of the cuts went to the well-to-do, but after all, they are the people who pay the most taxes. Nothing amiss there. The deficits are out of control, but Vice President Dick Cheney, called the Britney Spears of conservative white guys, said it well: "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter."

The tendency of conservative media idols to turn out to be hypocrites, liars, cads, drug addicts or worse can be maddening, of course. That's why compassionate conservatism was invented, to show compassion for your own.

Perhaps conservatives are doomed to remain far from gruntled by the very nature of conservatism. Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century British Tory prime minister, put it thus: "Conservatism discards prescription, shrinks from principle, disavows progress; having rejected all respect for antiquity, it offers no redress for the present, and makes no preparation for the future."

No wonder levity appears so thin among the conservative ranks. That does not mean they are implacable.

Ian Macleod, a prominent British Conservative politician of the last century, noted that conservatives, in time, always forgive those who were wrong. Indeed often, he said, they forgive those who were right.

I happily fall into one of those forgivable categories.

Gibbons is interim editor of the Chronicle's opinion pages and a member of the editorial board. james.gibbons@chron.com