Lessons for Liberalism

Posted Oct. 12, 2008, at 4:57 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 3:25 a.m.

Liberal commentators are looking at polls and declaring conservatism dead. The obituary may be a bit premature, but their optimism is understandable. Sen. Barack Obama is ahead in popular vote polls and his electoral picture is getting rosier. Further boosting liberal enthusiasm is President Bush’s approval ratings of about 30 percent.

And the most telling harbinger of all is that most Americans now favor stricter regulation of the economy. That swing is not merely a knee-jerk reaction to the current crisis. A November 2005 Harris Poll showed that most Americans wanted to see more regulation of oil and pharmaceutical companies, and nearly half wanted to see more oversight of health insurance firms.

If liberals are right, the epitaph might be: “It turns out that government is at least part of the solution.”

But a more clear-eyed analysis of the current mood suggests that the pendulum had merely swung too far in one direction. Instead of seeing government as the great equalizer or the inhibitor of the worst of capitalism, government has been seen in recent decades as an annoying kink in the hose, an expensive tollbooth on the highway. That pendulum, of course, had swung too far the other way a few decades earlier.

Liberalism began ascending in the U.S. in the early years of the Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs were aimed at redistributing the wealth, or at least putting a financial foundation under all Americans. Given the times, the programs were mostly embraced.

The New Deal approach continued through the 1960s. In 1965, Congress passed President Johnson’s “War On Poverty” programs, including the creation of Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and many other social welfare initiatives. But when the energy crises, high interest rates and foreign policy impotence doomed the Carter administration, the time was ripe for Ronald Reagan to suggest that government and its proclivity for regulating, spending and spawning bureaucracy were, indeed, the problem.

So if the nation is on the cusp of a resurgence of liberalism as a dominant political philosophy, what lessons can its proponents learn?

First, they must keep their eye on the bottom line. The same people who embrace more regulation don’t want to pay too much for it. Fiscal conservatism is liberalism’s new stepbrother, and he wants a seat at the family meeting.

Second, liberals must remember President Clinton’s missteps on health care reform. The Clintons recklessly ignored Republican objections to their bold plan and paid a dear price in losing control of Congress to the GOP in 1994. If Democrats control Congress next year, as is likely, and the White House, as is possible, they must avoid the tyranny of the majority. They must work with Republicans and downscale their plans.

And last, any new liberal reign must recognize that the public is fickle and conflicted. It wants both low taxes and quality services. It likes regulation in theory, but not in practice.

If they don’t heed such warnings, liberals soon will see the next Ronald Reagan in their rearview mirrors.

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