Barack Obama Needs to Be Careful of Liberal Tendencies

The libertarian ideal is more at the core of America than is the liberal one.

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Lib-err-al! Lib-err-al!

It's been 20 years since Republican crowds mocked Michael Dukakis with that chant. Some vacuous conservative commentators have had whole careers blaming everything that is wrong in America on leftist conspirators.

But today, it's maybe not so bad to be a liberal once again.

The masters of Wall Street, and the average American's 401(k) account, are being rescued by classically liberal economics.

The best and most honorable of liberal causes—civil rights for African-Americans—may be nearing fulfillment, with a black presidential candidate leading in the polls in mid-October.

Mercy! A liberal columnist for the New York Times just won the Nobel Prize for economics.

As the biographer of two great liberal icons—Clarence Darrow and Tip O'Neill—I might, you suspect, be happy that the pendulum has swung back toward the left.

But my work on Darrow and Tip, and my experience as a White House reporter during the Clinton and Bush years, fill me with foreboding. The more I study American history, the more I am firmly convinced that the American ideal is, at its core, libertarian.

The American people will turn to collective action when necessary—usually in the face of a foreign threat or a natural or economic disaster. But the essence of America is individual liberty and opportunity—not collectivization or engineered results.

And liberals, from Darrow's day down to our own, tend to forget that.

So here are a few words of warning to the liberal Democrats who, even if they don't seize the White House in November, seem destined to be setting the tone in Washington and the statehouses for the next couple of years.

1. Prioritize. After so many years in the wild, liberals are likely, as in the Carter and Clinton years, to be a little punch drunk when compiling an agenda. They need to forgo social engineering and focus on lunch-bucket economics and a revived energy industry. Or, as Barack Obama puts it: "J-O-B-S." Prosperity is the prerequisite of all liberal ambition.

2. Reform. It is time for the Democrats to revive Al Gore's program for "reinventing government" to cut waste and to convince a cynical electorate that government can perform honestly and efficiently. Only then should they tackle Olympian tasks like universal healthcare.

3. Defend. If I need to explain the importance of national defense to liberals, then the Democrats are as hopeless as their foes claim.

4. Compromise. There are certain blood-and-bone issues—restoring a progressive tax system and appointing Supreme Court judges—for which liberals may need to go to the mattresses. But they need to remember, as conservatives initially recognized but then forgot, that they are governing for all Americans—not just their political base.

Pragmatic solutions that attract bipartisan support are the order of the day. Leave gay marriage to the states. Let guns alone. Join with willing Republicans to reduce the number of abortions. Honor family, the flag, and the Pledge of Allegiance.

It's good politics. If the Democrats are serious about their 50-state strategy and want to maintain their majorities in Congress, they need to listen to the citizens of Texas and Indiana and Montana and Georgia, not just California and New Jersey.

But it is also good governing. We are in one of those periods when we Americans need to recall what unites us and come together. And if the other guy's beliefs don't fit our own, agree to disagree and celebrate the blessings we have in common.

The overriding theme of the 2008 election was stated not this year, nor last, but by Obama in his speech at the Democratic convention in the summer of 2004. There are no red states. There are no blue states. There are only the United States.

That should be the liberals' chant.

Or the voters will be chanting lib-err-al! once more.