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 really feeling bold, they highlight policies that they are proud to reveal were based on Republican ideas of just a few years earlier, things like the Heritage Foundation’s health care plan or the market-based solution of cap and trade.
I would disagree that liberalism – although that’s probably the wrong phrase – has disappeared. It’s just become hidden beneath a thicket of campaign contributions from wealthy donors. The decline of unions as a political counterweight means that Democrats chase big money, and not surprisingly they respond to big money concerns. Issues like poverty, hunger, and need go unremarked upon on the national stage, even while they remain core concerns at the community level.
Defenders of the current Democratic Party would say that the structures set up through the Great Society have sustained the poor through the Great Recession, eliminating the need for more or better programs. They would point to this Congressional Research Service study showing a 33% increase in anti-poverty programs since 2008 (with “anti-poverty” defined incredibly broadly by Sen. Jeff Sessions, who commissioned the study to ensure that the welfare state looked as big as possible). The automatic stabilizers for the poor worked, they would say. And a majority of the new spending came from the stimulus, which contained lots of boosts for the poor. Heck, the Affordable Care Act, they would argue, represents a transfer from the pockets of those tapped to pay for the legislation to subsidies so poor and near-poor people can purchase health insurance.
You can assess these arguments on their own. But I would say that the agenda at the upper echelon of the Democratic Party has narrowed over the past 50 years, and it’s not like the safety net is so stable and robust that there’s nothing more to do. In fact, our social safety net is among the tiniest in the industrialized world. But poor people don’t have lobbyists, and that’s how Washington works these days.