Michael Gerson is a former Bush speechwriter, and an unlikely candidate to have written something with which I wholeheartedly agree. But I think he’s reached a core insight here:
In its heyday — say, the 1960s — American liberalism had an obvious identity. It was ambitious, reformist and frankly moral in its appeal to a common good that included minorities and the poor. It was praised as idealistic and attacked as utopian. Robert Kennedy, quoting Aeschylus, set out “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” [...]
After four years of Barack Obama and two clarifying presidential debates, it is extraordinary how shrunken liberalism has become. During his much-praised town-hall performance, the president set out a second-term agenda of stunning humility. Enumerating the reasons that the “future is bright,” Obama proposed tax incentives for domestic investment, trade promotion, greater investment in solar and wind power, road and bridge construction, broader job retraining in community colleges and higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy. He added pledges to defend Medicare and Planned Parenthood against barbarian assault.
The candidate was energized; the agenda remained tired. Taken together, Obama’s proposals have little ambition or thematic coherence. They add up to the Marginally Greater Society. It helps little to repeat the words “middle class” over and over in an attempt at political hypnosis. After four years of weary wandering in the economic wilderness, Obama is still incapable of describing the Promised Land.
I might not put it quite this way, but here’s the area of agreement: Obama comes at the end of a 30-year cycle of narrowing and narrowing what passes for the liberal agenda. The landscape was so different in the 1970s that Nixon was calling for a guaranteed income. Now when Democrats are