WHAT DO liberal Democrats think about the war in Iraq? That's easy: It was a blunder that has become a debacle, and it should be brought to an end as soon as possible.
What do conservative Republicans think about the war? That's not so easy.
The right has been fighting over the war since well before it began. The American Conservative -- a biweekly magazine launched in 2002 by Pat Buchanan, a former aide to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and twice a Republican presidential candidate himself -- has vehemently opposed the Iraq campaign, regarding it as the worst kind of nation-building, a squandering of blood and treasure for no vital American interest.
By contrast, The Weekly Standard -- a conservative journal edited by William Kristol, an influential Republican strategist -- was among the earliest advocates of invading Iraq, and continues to vigorously defend what it calls "The Right War for the Right Reasons."
Tune in to a Republican presidential debate, and you'll hear views on Iraq that range from John McCain ("if we fail and we have to withdraw, they will follow us home") to Sam Brownback ("we've got to put forward a political plan to create a three-state solution") to Ron Paul ("it was a mistake to go, so it's a mistake to stay").
The Democratic candidates, on the other hand, debate only the purity of one another's antiwar stance: Whose denunciation of the war came first? Whose goes the furthest? They squabble over style, but when it comes to substance, as Hillary Clinton said during a recent debate, "the differences among us are minor."
Iraq is not an anomaly. On one important issue after another, the right churns with serious disputes over policy and principle, while the left marches mostly in lockstep. Liberals sometimes disagree over tactics and details, but anyone taking a heterodox position on a major issue can find himself out in the cold. Just ask Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat dumped by his party for the sin of supporting the war.
In the liberal imagination, conservatives are blind dogmatists, spouters of a party line fed to them by (take your pick) big business, their church, or President Bush. (A classic expression of this idea was the Washington Post's description of evangelical Christians in a Page 1 story some years back as "poor, uneducated, and easy to command.") Yet almost anywhere you look on the right these days, what stands out is the lack of ideological conformity.
Take immigration. National Review, an old and distinguished address on the map of American conservatism, has long championed a restrictionist immigration policy and a tough-minded crackdown on illegal immigrants; it furiously opposed the recent Senate immigration bill. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, an equally venerable conservative voice, favors more immigration, not less, and regards the crusade against illegal immigration as contrary to America's best interests. On May 31, in an editorial on their popular website, the editors of National Review threw down the gauntlet:
"We hereby challenge the Journal's editors to debate the immigration bill in a neutral venue with a moderator of their choosing -- two or three of us versus any two or three of them. . . . We urge them to come out of the shadows, and hope defending the bill in this forum is not another one of those jobs that no American will do."
It isn't only within the conservative media that immigration policy is hotly debated. The GOP presidential field runs the gamut from McCain, co-author of the immigration bill, to hard-liner Tom Tancredo, who calls the bill "the worst piece of legislation to come down the pike in a long time." In the think-tank world, a leading advocate of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is Tamar Jacoby (no relation), an expert at the conservative Manhattan Institute. One of the most implacable voices against any such "amnesty" is Heather Mac Donald -- also of the Manhattan Institute.
Another example: abortion. The GOP platform has been pro-life for decades, yet the unabashedly pro-choice Rudy Giuliani leads most of the Republican preference polls. Try to imagine a pro-life Democrat as a front-running candidate for the White House.
Or health insurance: The Massachusetts healthcare law that takes effect next month is highly praised by the Heritage Foundation and fiercely critiqued by the Cato Institute, two of Washington's most influential right-of-center think tanks.
From school vouchers to stem cell research to racial preferences to torture, the American right bubbles with debate and disagreement, while the left, for all its talk about "diversity," rarely seems to show any. As National Review's Jonah Goldberg points out, that may be because "liberals define diversity by skin color and sex, not by ideas, which makes it difficult to have really good arguments."
Really good arguments are no bad thing. They energize political parties and put convictions to the test. They illuminate the issues. They make people think – politicians, pundits, and voters alike. The debates on the right enliven the marketplace of ideas and enrich the democratic process. Some debates on the left would, too.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)