Dec. 21, 2004
What's happened to the liberals? It's got to be those beavers.

My friend Marge is a liberal. Resolutely so. Through the years her public-policy positions, whether on economic or social issues, always have been dependably to the left. She's for gun control and abortion rights, but against school vouchers and Social Security privatization. She thinks the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Endangered Species Act are splendid pieces of legislation. She wants the minimum wage raised, the Clean Air Act strengthened, the Kyoto global-warming treaty signed. More than anything else, it's an article of faith with her that government should be activist. She is deeply suspicious of the market system. Corporations, she once asserted, are inherently evil. So you can imagine my astonishment a few weeks ago when, out of the blue, Marge mentioned that China should be admitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO). That was a stunner. Most liberals adamantly believe that the Chinese should be punished for their human-rights abuses and that their membership in WTO would serve only those greedy American companies. Yet here was Marge sounding like a spokesperson for the Business Roundtable. "We can't ignore China," she intoned. "It is the biggest nation on earth. The best way to reform it is by engaging it. Trade and politics should be separate." At first, I attributed Marge's amazing transformation to the fact that she is a Democrat and was merely supporting President Clinton, who, in a reversal of one of his major 1992 campaign themes, has consistently urged granting China so-called "Normal Trade Relations." But then, a few days later, came another stunner: Marge proclaimed that not only did she approve of the air strikes against Yugoslavia, but also that NATO should send in ground forces. Wow! This from a flower-child of the 1960s who passed out literature for George McGovern and later protested U.S. intervention in Central America and the Persian Gulf War. Now I'm convinced there's a deeper reason for Marge's conversion: It can all be explained by the beavers. Yes, the beavers! You may remember that back in March, just as the cherry blossoms were peaking in Washington, three beavers took up residence in the Tidal Basin and proceeded to gnaw down 13 trees, including several of the beloved Japanese cherries. The incident evoked a public-policy debate that gripped the Nation's Capital as has no other. Some Washingtonians sided with the cherry trees, others with the beavers. I've never seen Marge so torn. Obviously she wanted the carnage to the cherry trees ended. Yet, she also wanted no harm done to the beavers who, after all, were merely doing what beavers do -- felling trees and trying to build dams. (Never mind that beavers have never been known to apply for a permit from the Corps of Engineers.) It was an obvious situation for government intervention, of which Marge is so fond. But how? Killing the beavers wasn't humane. Yet neither was relocating them to a different habitat. Beavers, it turns out, tend to be killed by other beavers when they intrude into new territory. There was, alas, no good answer. Ultimately, National Park Service rangers did trap the beavers and transported them -- in the dead of night -- to an undisclosed woodsy location somewhere outside Washington. The government refuses to divulge just where, or whether the beavers have survived. (It would be a good subject for an investigative journalist.) The dilemma exposed government as the impotent giant it often is. For the first time, I think, Marge realized that policy issues aren't black and white, and that there are limits to governmental solutions. My beaver theory also might explain the philosophical turnabout of several liberals in Congress. For instance, there are all those doves -- House Minority Whip David Bonior (D, Mich.) comes to mind -- who suddenly are hawkish on Yugoslavia. In a more business-related example, there's Sen. Ron Wyden (D, Oreg.), a staunch champion of consumer interests who always has been a pain in the neck for business lobbyists. Yet this month he broke ranks with other Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee to support legislation that protects companies from Y2K lawsuits. As for WTO membership for China, Congressional approval of any such deal may seem unlikely in the wake of the recent escalation of ill-feeling between the U.S. and China. But business executives shouldn't despair. Something has been gnawing at the liberal mindset. It's got to be those beavers.

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