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Why liberals lose: lessons from REM

Rob Asghar —

Will the Vote for Change tour change many votes? I have — to vote no.

On the first night of this national concert tour, I had — the chance to watch REM, John Fogerty, an annoyingly angry Bright Eyes, — and headliner Bruce Springsteen in a sold-out Wachovia Center in Philadelphia.

REM played an uninspiring set. Many in the crowd would — restlessly call for "Bruuuuuce" in between songs, while the more candid — ones shrieked, "Play something we know, you

$@*% !!!" But Michael Stipe — and his band insisted on being unpredictable and novel, mainly playing — new and obscure works. And you could feel the dissipation of energy in — the arena.

Where were so many of REM's classic tracks, the rousing — anthems? Nowhere to be heard. The band had the crowd hopping up and down — in the palm of its hand whenever it played a song that the average fan — recognized, but they did it on only three brief occasions.

It's a symbol of a liberal blind spot: True liberals often — lack restraint and focus.

Bruce, a national treasure and genuine man of the people, — didn't fall prey to that, and the show would have been more powerful if — he and the E Street Band showed up by themselves, or with just brief appearances — by the others. Granted, he did go through a self-indulgent phase 15 years — ago in which he fired the E Streeters and went on tour to play mostly — new and boring songs; but he got that nonsense out of his system.

Conservative pundit Max Boot may have exaggerated when — he recently observed that "conservatives like character, liberals like — cleverness" - but his words came to mind as I watched REM flush away its — opportunity to galvanize the crowd because it preferred to be fresh and — clever.

"Cleverness" may be a bit harsh. More charitably, we can — say that liberals like inventiveness and eclecticism and thoughtfulness — (that's why they dismiss George Bush as "C-Plus Augustus). But this is — no recipe for domination of the American mainstream.

Conservatives know how to get behind something. They know — how organize with discipline, tact and subtlety. Liberals don't cohere — as well, because their very love for eclecticism and diversity keeps them — from losing themselves completely in a shared pursuit.

When shared anger does lead them to come together and — organize, it quickly becomes Chicago '68 all over again; they get out — of hand and scare the pants off Joe and Jane Six-Pack in the suburbs of — Columbus, Ohio.

Put four liberals in a room and you'll get some creative — ideas; put four hundred of them in a room and you'll get a holy mess. — A large group of conservatives can sing out of one hymnal, but a large — group of liberals will generate a cacophony.

Think about what the word liberal means: free, generous, — without restraint, without bounds. That's what makes liberals great-but — it's also what sometimes makes them incapable of using power very well — for very long.

In a just-released book, theologian Tod Bolsinger (yes, — the brother of this paper's editor) notes that the difference between — a mighty river and a dead swamp is less a matter of content - they're — both made up of water and dirt - than a matter of form: the river has — firm banks and boundaries, the swamp doesn't.

Liberalism launches nations, causes and reforms with a — great crashing wave, but lacks the boundaries to keep that wave properly — channeled. The wave becomes a swamp, unless some balance arises to lock — in those reforms by instilling restraint and building boundaries.

It's like a child blowing up a balloon: Either he needs — the discipline to know when to stop, or the discipline will be imposed — by Mother Nature. When more liberals learn not to blather on a la REM, — and when they learn to focus less on being clever and more on being focused, — they can make more of an impact in national politics.