Cook: A conservative and a liberal walk into a bar

Cook: A conservative and a liberal walk into a bar

September 5th, 2011 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

Last Monday, while poking a stick at Rep. Chuck Fleischmann for only sponsoring one bill since arriving in Washington, I wrote about a pretty outlandish idea: an annual income cap ($10 million) that transfers any extra money earned by an individual to college kids struggling to pay tuition.

In the last seven days, this idea has exploded on me like a joke-store cigar.

"Does the [Times Free Press] actually pay this guy to write such drivel?" one reader commented.

Others weren't as kind.

"Jackass," emailed one woman.

Tongue in cheek, I had written about such an exaggerated idea -- a $10 million income cap! -- to push down some walls and let other more realistic ideas and questions be given room to emerge.

Like tossing a Hail Mary pass, I crossed my fingers. Held my breath. Hoped readers would understand the larger questions I was asking: What is our moral and financial obligation to others? What do fairness and justice look like in our economic system?

"Liberal," one reader said, like an accusation.

So if your emotional tachometer went straight to red after reading that wealth should be transferred from the super-rich to those with far less, I've got two things to say to you:

I am liberal.

And conservative, too.

"We believe in the rights of individuals to achieve whatever they can on their own without the help of the government," said Marty Von Schaaf, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party.

I called Von Schaaf to ask him to name the essence of Chattanooga conservatism. Boil it down, I told him. What is the heartbeat of it all?

"One of the first things we as Republicans believe is in smaller government," he said. Then, he began to discuss the importance of family. When it breaks down, the fabric of our nation goes with it, he said.

Amen. In the 11 years I've been a husband and father, I am stunned by the amount of forces in this society trying to tear families apart. Junk media -- interested in either sex, violence or money -- and the widespread notion that lying is acceptable create a culture that works against families, instead of for them.

And like Von Schaaf said, I, too, believe government is best when it's small and local. And freedom and hard work are walking sticks along the road to happiness.

But I also know things are rarely this cut and dried.

Years ago, I lived in a small town in Virginia. One of my friends there worked as little as possible, he said, to keep receiving government assistance checks on a regular basis. He was lazy, sometimes stoned and drank too much beer.

So when I hear debates on welfare, I think of him.

But I also think of the four words a Chattanooga teenager once told me. An honor-roll, never-late-for-work type of kid, she lived with her grandmother, who held down two jobs at once to pay the bills. And she still needed government assistance.

"Welfare saved my life," that teenager -- who I'd bet a month's salary will contribute in majestic ways to our country -- told me.

"We are one nation under God," Von Schaaf said. "We believe in government for the people."

The God I believe in created a wide variety of folks who are going to continue to believe different things. Beyond an individual's beliefs, there is dignity, which is far more important than political parties.

I refuse to believe that politics can't honor and respect this. Folks can be liberal and conservative at the same time, and we don't have to see politics in a binary and myopic way. It reminds me of an old yarn.

A conservative and liberal walk into a bar. Bartender looks up, sees the two of them together and asks: "Is this some kind of joke?"

It shouldn't have to be.

David Cook can be reached at