THE 110TH CONGRESS convened under new management last week, and in the House of Representatives, the rush was on. Led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrats got ready to plow through an ambitious pile of legislation in their first 100 hours. Among the items on their punch list: increasing the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, expanding publicly funded embryonic stem cell research, cutting the interest rate on student loans, and imposing price controls on Medicare prescription drugs.
A more liberal policy agenda isn't all that will be moving into the spotlight. There will be a heightened focus on liberal arguments as well -- which means we'll be hearing more about good intentions and less about good results. Political discourse will dwell even more than it already does on "fairness" and "compassion" and "unmet needs" -- and even less on factual evidence and the historical record.
The minimum-wage issue illustrates the pattern well. Proponents of this quintessentially liberal prescription emphasize the difficulties faced by those trying to make a living and support a family while working a minimum-wage job. They point out how inflation has eroded the value of the wage. They contrast the soaring paychecks of CEOs at the top of the economic ladder with the pittance earned by those at the bottom. They frame the question as one of decency and sympathy: Don't you want to help the working poor? Don't they deserve a raise too?
"In the last nine years, Congress has voted itself seven pay increases," says Senator Edward M. Kennedy. "If a pay raise is important enough for members of Congress, then it is essential for the lowest-paid workers in this country."
Opponents, by contrast, point to data and economics. They note, for example, that most minimum-wage workers are neither poor nor family breadwinners, but singles in their teens or early 20s, often students working part-time while living with Mom and Dad. They argue that while a minimum-wage increase helps some people, it hurts others: If the cost of employing low-skill workers goes up, fewer low-skill workers will be employed. They invoke history, which shows that jobs are destroyed by minimum-wage hikes.
"The enactment of the first federal minimum wage law in 1933," writes economist Thomas Sowell, "raised the average wage rate in the Southern textile industry by 70 percent -- and half a million blacks nationwide lost their jobs."
What is true of the minimum-wage debate is true of so many others. Affirmative action, sex education, energy policy, family law, criminal procedure -- on issue after issue, people on the left are more likely to stress virtuous motives, while those on the right accentuate real-world outcomes.
Should income-tax rates be cut? Liberals say no, repelled by the apparent selfishness of enriching the well-to-do, when it is the poor who need more money. Conservatives say yes, knowing that tax relief spurs economic growth from which everyone benefits. Is bilingual education desirable? Yes, argues the left, concerned about the self-esteem of non-English-speaking children. No, insists the right, recognizing that children master English more quickly when they aren't shunted off into linguistic ghettos. Time and again, the pattern is clear: Liberals are galvanized by idealistic motives; conservatives find reality more persuasive.
This helps explain why the left is so often infatuated with the idea of its own benevolence -- and why liberals are so quick to accuse their opponents of being not just wrong, but wicked.
Asked about political bias in the news media, UPI's veteran reported Helen Thomas once replied: "A liberal bias? I don't know what a liberal bias is. Do you mean we care about the poor, the sick, and the maimed? Do we care whether people are being shot every day on the streets of America? If that's liberal, so be it. I think it's everything that's good in life -- that we do care."
Of course, if liberals are good people who care -- why, that must mean that nonliberals are bad people who don't care. Just ask Thomas:
"You have rolled back health and safety and environmental measures," she scolded President Bush at a press conference in 2001. "This has been widely interpreted as a payback time to your corporate donors. Are they more important than the American people's health and safety?" Those convinced that their own motives are pure are more likely to assume that their opponents' motives are tainted.
Obviously these are only generalizations. Republicans are not always immune to the self-justifying halo of a policy's noble goals. Democrats are not always blind to outcomes. Just look, some might say, at the Republican-led war in Iraq. And there are certainly cynics in both camps who are more interested in power and self-aggrandizement than anything else.
But as a broad rule, intentions are the currency of the left, while results matter most to the right. That is why Bill Clinton made a point of feeling our pain, while Ronald Reagan insisted that facts were stubborn things.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)