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New Year's Resolutions

Will liberals learn from adversity?

Washington—Was 2010 American liberalism’s Waterloo? How are we to square the achievement of so many goals that have long been on progressive wish lists with the resounding defeat suffered by supporters of these measures in November?

Let’s begin with what is a most painful fact for liberals: Conservatism, a doctrine that seemed moribund on election night in 2008, enjoyed a far more rapid comeback than all liberals and even most conservatives anticipated.

More than that, the current brand of conservatism is far more zealous than the political disposition of either Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. Barry Goldwater went down to a thunderous defeat in 1964 after he declared that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” That might as well be the working slogan of the tea party movement.

The energy in our politics has shifted rightward with an abruptness that was inconceivable in the final weeks of the 2008 campaign, when Barack Obama could call a rally and count on tens of thousands to materialize almost at an instant.

If there is one thing the Obama White House most underestimates, it is the dispirited mood of its troops. This is not just about “the left” but, more importantly, about his broader rank-and-file who expected that he would usher in more change, enjoy more success in confronting his Republican opponents, and prove more skilled in shifting the nation’s political dialogue in a progressive direction.

For the president’s loyalists, of course, this indictment is profoundly unfair. He inherited a mess at home and abroad. The economic downturn began on Bush’s watch, but its bitter fruits were harvested after Obama took office. By contrast, Franklin Roosevelt took power after Herbert Hoover had presided over three of the most miserable years in American economic history. Blame was firmly fixed on Hoover by the time FDR showed up with his jaunty smile and contagious optimism.

And, yes, there is the small issue of Obama’s real achievements, the health care law above all. If insuring 32 million more Americans is not an enormous social reform, then nothing can be said to count as change. The now well-rehearsed list of additional accomplishments—from Wall Street and student loan reform to the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to the simple fact that the economy’s catastrophic slide was halted and reversed—would, in the abstract, do any administration proud.

What, then, can Obama and his discouraged allies do to regain the initiative?

For starters, they must restore a functional relationship between the White House and its sometimes-friends, sometimes-critics on the left. Too often, the White House has been caught whining about its progressive critics. The president’s aides act as if whatever Obama happens to decide is the only sensible and realistic thing to do. For the left to ask Obama to be bolder in testing the limits of the possible means it is doing its job of pushing the president to do more, and to do it faster. Conservatives have mastered this approach. Why can’t liberals do the same?

But too often, progressives have spent more time complaining about what wasn’t done than in finding ways to build on what has actually been achieved. It took decades to complete the modern Social Security system, and years to move from tepid to robust civil rights laws and from modest to comprehensive environmental regulation. Impatience is indispensable to getting reform started; patience is essential to seeing its promise fulfilled.

And both the liberals and Obama need to escape the bubbles of legislative and narrowly ideological politics and re-engage the country on what can only be called a spiritual level. Modern American liberalism is not some abstract and alien creed. At its best, it marries a practical, get-things-done approach to government with a devotion to fairness, justice, and compassion. These sentiments are grounded in the nation’s religious traditions and also in our commitment to community-building that Alexis de Tocqueville so appreciated.

Conservatives talk so much about first principles that they seem to forget how difficult it is to govern effectively. Liberals talk so much about specific programs that they forget how much citizens care about the values that undergird those programs and the moral choices that nurture those values.

In 2010, American liberals should have been cured of any overconfidence. Now, they and the president need to rekindle the hope that this year will be most remembered not for the defeats, but for the first steps taken down a more promising road.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)
(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group