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Whether we're Republican or Democrat, most of us are part liberal and part conservative. Sometimes it's hard to know which we are.

Part of the problem is that we use the words "liberal" and "conservative" as though their meanings were understood and agreed on by everyone, and they are not. When some people describe a politician or a friend as "liberal," they mean it as a compliment. When a conservative like radio talker Rush Limbaugh uses the word liberal, he spits it out. It's the worst thing he can call someone.

With so many voters on the fence, it's understandable why both candidates, Al Gore and George W. Bush, try to straddle it. They avoid using either word to describe themselves. Conservative sounds like rich, and Bush doesn't want to sound as though he's only going to represent rich people, so he calls himself "a compassionate conservative." Gore avoids the word liberal in relation to himself because of the Rush Limbaugh connotation.

As a result of not wanting to call themselves exclusively "liberal" or "conservative," both candidates substitute the phrase "middle class." Most of us don't like to think of ourselves as "high class" or "low class" because of the connotations connected with those phrases, so when politicians say "middle class," it sounds as if they're talking about us. They're going to give us something.

Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans are closer on a lot of issues than they used to be. They've come from the far left and the far right and met near the middle. The liberal ideas so fiercely fought for 60 years ago by Democrats are pretty much accepted now, even by conservative Republicans. You don't hear George W. Bush advocating getting rid of Social Security, even though his Republican Party ancestors fought against the program.

It was during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, that liberals fought for welfare, Social Security, farmers' subsidies, restrictions on the manner in which big companies could do business and the right of workers to organize themselves into unions.

All those liberal programs of Roosevelt's New Deal are pretty well established now. The most right-wing Republican doesn't deny that Social Security is a good thing. Business executives no longer deny workers' right to organize. Liberals have had a lot of issues taken away from them by having them passed into law. Conservatives are having a hard time being conservative when everyone has it so good under a liberal administration.

One of the strange things about this campaign is evidence that many working people, even low-paid ones who are helped most by government programs, believe there's too much government. If it wasn't true that a lot of working people are as conservative as the average corporate president, the race between Gore and Bush wouldn't be as close as it seems to be. It isn't just rich people who are voting Republican, because the polls show each candidate has something like 46 percent of the votes - and we all know 46 percent of Americans are not rich.

To be a political liberal has traditionally meant to be an advocate of using the power of government to promote social progress and reduce misery among the people in society least able to take care of themselves. To be a political conservative means you advocate leaving things the way they are and letting people work things out for themselves. Conservatives favor individualism. Liberals think everyone should work together toward a common goal.

There are certain areas where the definitions of the words don't work at all. For example, liberal Democrats are more apt to express concern for the conservation of open spaces, woodlands and wetlands, and for avoiding pollution of rivers, lakes and oceans. This is liberals being conservative.

Conservatives are being liberal when they advocate the free use of everything without restriction without regard to the economy or the environment. It's possible these days to be a liberal conservative or a conservative liberal. Maybe that's why the candidates are having such a hard time reaching us.

Tribune Media Services

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