I often express frustration in these pages over the fact that conservatives simply never get their arguments right. To some, this may sound pedantic, or it may sound like I am simply a political expert who is unduly concerned with details.

Wrong. What I am saying repeatedly here is that the whole mental process of conservatives is off base. You simply cannot deal with the real world unless you understand what the real questions are. Conservatives get their arguments wrong because they do not understand what the real questions are.

Elian Gonzalez is a case in point. Conservatives talked about everything but the real point. So, as usual, they lost.

Conservatives argued that Castro has an oppressive regime. They argued that America was a better place for a child than Cuba. They argued that the dead mother had the rights to the child, not the living father.

And, because they missed the whole point, they lost every single argument. Certainly the United States is a better place than Cuba for a child to grow up in. But if you follow that argument, as liberals were quick to point out, every child in every Caribbean country has a right to be in the United States. Liberals naturally hit the race card on that one, as they had every right to do. Certainly Haiti is horrible place for its children. It is also oppressive, despite or because of the huge sums the United States spent to save it from dictatorship.

If a Cuban child has the right to get out of a bad place, why not any black child, too?

And conservatives, true to their ever-losing strategy, said exactly the wrong thing about the dead mother and custody.

I think almost everybody is aware of the raw deal fathers get in custody battles. I have seen practicing female dope addicts get custody over clean and sober fathers. Conservatives saw a mother who died getting her child out of Cuba and, as always, they got precisely the wrong message out of it. Instead of emphasizing the fact that she died in an escape from a national prison, they talked about how she died to give her child a better life.

As I pointed out last week, the ONLY -- let me repeat that -- the ONLY valid argument against Elian going back to Cuba is the nature of Cuba as A NATIONAL PRISON.

It was never mentioned. It was never mentioned once. As I pointed out last week, when a black congresswoman said that Elian should go to his father now and make his decision about where he wanted to live when he was thirteen or so, the conservative on Crossfire just sat there, and didn't say a word. But no other conservative made that point, either.

If they had pressed this point, conservatives might have gotten some sort of concessions about Elian having the right to decide when he was older. Such a promise may have been of little practical use, but it would have kept the question open, and the emphasis right.

As it is, the question never came up. So now if he is sent back Elian will be just one more trapped Cuban, and no one will ever be able to protest that. That is because, in order to get to the point, conservatives would have to first screw their heads on right. That means getting their argument right.