Compassionate conservative. Reagan conservative. Common sense conservative. It doesn't much matter.
Since 1980, no word in the political lexicon has been more overused. Candidates wave it as a talisman, as if voters will find its mere utterance hypnotic.
But with its constant invocation, radio airwaves to county-fair megaphones, the word has lost much of its meaning.
Case in point: Georgia's Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate says he's conservative. But the question for voters in November is: What does conservative mean to Saxby Chambliss, a Moultrie attorney who has represented deep South Georgia in Congress for four terms?
Is he conservative like, say, Sam Nunn, or like Jesse Helms? Is he conservative like Zell Miller? Or Newt Gingrich? Or, for that matter, Augusto Pinochet? In other words, how far right does Saxby Chambliss go?
He says his campaign is about taking his "common sense conservatism" from the House of Representatives to the Senate.
But would a torrent of votes to expand the federal power over our personal lives be applauded by traditionally conservative proponents of limited government?
Is it common sense to vote against just about every major piece of environmental legislation presented to Congress in the last eight years when children in your state's largest metropolitan area are being told they can't play outside because the air pollution is so bad?
Does voting against including birth control pills in health insurance plans exemplify down-home logic when you also stridently oppose abortion rights?
And if you side with your party almost without exception, is that reflective of the deep thinking and political independence Georgians should expect from a representative who wants a job in the country's most deliberative and powerful legislative body?
On one key issue, abortion, critics charge that Chambliss adopted the most radical position in order to win approval from a "conservative" group -- and then retreated to a less zealous position in an effort to pick up more moderate votes in November.
It seems fair to ask, then: Is Saxby Chambliss a real "conservative"? Or does his agenda put him outside the mainstream for most Georgians?
The GOP, eager to snap up what it considers a vulnerable Senate seat and return a Republican majority, has pushed a version of Chambliss that doesn't completely jibe with the guy doing the voting in Washington.
"In four terms as a congressman, Saxby's become one of the most respected members of the House -- thoughtful, principled and always willing to work with colleagues to find bipartisan solutions to the country's problems," Vice President Dick Cheney has said of Chambliss.
Consider, though, where Chambliss has been for the last eight years: in what may be the most far-right House of Representatives in a generation. It's a place where Chambliss doesn't often have to work for a bi-partisan solution. In the case of the passage of the controversial USA PATRIOT Act, he actually worked against one. Moreover, since 1997, the non-partisan Congressional Quarterly lists Chambliss' party unity ranking -- meaning the percentage of times he votes with his party -- at 94 percent. While that might endear Chambliss to GOP bosses, it hardly suggests senatorial independence.
Civil liberties, environmental and labor groups all flunk Chambliss' voting record during his eight years in the House. Truth is, they flunk most Republicans. But take a closer look. According to these groups, Chambliss' record singles him out even among the Bob Barrs and John Linders of Georgia's congressional delegation.
Of course, Chambliss scoffs at those interest group boxscores. The difference of a few percentage points between himself and, say, John Linder on an ACLU scorecard doesn't mean he's the Angel of Death to Linder's Mother Teresa. And he's right.
But those few percentage points -- 31 to 6 in the 106th Congress, for example -- do suggest that Linder is capable of moderation and that, after all, is where 44 percent of this state's voters land in the ideological spectrum -- as moderates.
Start with the bills and amendments highlighted by the American Civil Liberties Union. Granted, many Georgians might disagree with the group on a host of issues, but the ACLU does monitor just how big our government would like to get. Since Republicans took control of Georgia's House delegation in 1995, Chambliss has earned the lowest marks from the ACLU during every session of Congress save one. During the 105th Congress, Rep. Nathan Deal, R-9th, scores lower, because he voted for campaign finance reform, which the ACLU opposed on First Amendment grounds.
While Chambliss may have a strong record of voting against intrusive taxes, he doesn't favor limiting other forms of government authority. In the 106th Congress, for instance, he voted against a reasonable reform bill that requires law enforcement to prove with clear evidence that a citizen's property is subject to forfeiture before the government takes it. The bill was hardly "liberal" legislation -- it was introduced by GOP stalwart Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and it passed by an overwhelming majority. Chambliss provided one of just 48 votes against it.
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