The new term is "progressive."
It is a term that has a long history in America, but recently it is self-described liberals who have taken to calling themselves progressives because "liberal" was so relentlessly and successfully attacked by Republicans for decades. Republicans, from the mid-sixties on, painted liberals as wooly-headed big spenders, and captives of special interests, like teachers' unions and a number of ethnic and gender groups. Thus, "progressive." If a term is holding you back, get rid of the term.
The problem of course is that modern liberals, or "progressives," are neither liberal nor progressive, something that has profound implications for the United States, both domestically and, especially, in its relations with other countries.
Today's liberals have little in common with the builders of liberalism from the Roosevelt, Truman and Kennedy eras. Men like Henry Jackson, Hubert Humphrey, Jack Kennedy, Paul Douglas, and women like Eleanor Roosevelt, would, at least in foreign policy, have more in common today with the Republican Party than with their own. In the period after World War II, and continuing until the Vietnam War tore the Democratic Party apart, liberals were national-defense stalwarts, proud of their opposition to all dictatorships. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, generally considered to the left of her husband, was a profound opponent of the Soviet Union.
Consider what traditional liberals did, without any pushing from the political right: They opposed Soviet designs on Iran in 1946; intervened to prevent a Communist takeover in Greece; established the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe; founded the United States Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency; challenged Moscow through the Berlin Airlift of 1948; recognized the state of Israel; led the development of NATO; intervened militarily in Korea in 1950; approved and pushed the development of a modern nuclear deterrent; actually challenged President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star general, asserting that he was too weak on defense; ran the Kennedy campaign of 1960 to the right of Nixon on national security; defeated the Soviet Union in the Cuban Missile Crisis; decided, whether wisely or not, to confront Communist expansion in Vietnam. Indeed, during part of the postwar period, liberals were often more hawkish, and more determined to maintain a major military deterrent, than were many Republicans, who sometimes seemed nostalgic for their party's isolationist past.
Domestically, there is no question that liberals favored expansion of government programs, but many of the domestic items they championed were built on traditional values. In New York, it was liberals who built the New York City public school system into the finest urban educational system in the United States. The liberal bastion, City College of New York, was routinely known as the poor man's Harvard, and was renowned for high standards and the demands placed on students.
There are few actions listed above that would be favored by self-proclaimed liberals today. Today's liberals are not descended from those who shaped the Democratic Party in the postwar years, and who built the structure of modern American defense. They are descended from the fringe faction that bolted the party in 1948 to run Henry Wallace for president on the Progressive Party ticket, then returned and became influential during the Vietnam War. Indeed, one liberal member of Congress, David Obey of Wisconsin, recently boasted that he'll challenge funding for Iraq and Afghanistan the same way he challenged it for Vietnam as a young congressman in 1969, 40 years ago. And some very liberal members of Congress recently paid a warm and respectful visit to Fidel Castro, and expressed no particular concerns about him or his regime.
It is inconceivable that the great liberals of the past would have behaved that way.
This is, according to some partisans in the press, the liberal hour. A liberal president sits in the White House, and his party controls both houses of Congress. Liberal interest groups have had electoral success that they could only dream of four years ago. Those concerned about national security, and America's ability to lead free nations, have reason to worry.
However, there are also trends in the other direction that potentially could ease the concern:
First, there is developing in Congress a rebirth of the coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats that ruled Capitol Hill for decades after the 1938 midterm elections. Just such a coalition came together last week to insure House passage of a funding bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, over fierce liberal objection.
Second, President Obama appears, at least for now, to be moving toward the center on national security, infuriating some of his backers on the left. As Dan Balz writes, in The Washington Post:
it was two decisions last week that touched off a controversy with the left. The first was a reversal by the president. After saying he favored the release of damaging photographs showing prisoners being abused while in U.S. custody, he announced that he would not seek their release. Public disclosure, he said, would threaten the safety of U.S. military personnel abroad and could inflame the rest of the world as he is trying to win new respect for the United States.
Then on Friday came the decision to resume, with some modifications, the military tribunals used by the Bush administration since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
It seems that the president, who is not above political calculation, senses that the majority of Americans will back him on national security if he hews to the center, and that these people are far more precious to his political standing than is the fringe left.
Third, polls show that, while the president remains popular, his party in Congress is not sharing in the glow. Rasmussen's generic congressional poll shows an even split between the parties, with the GOP sometimes edging out the Democrats. The party in power normally loses seats in a midterm election, and we have one next year. If present trends continue, it's possible that Republicans will gain, adding to the moderate coalition in Congress.
Fourth, as much as some Republicans fret about the visible presence of former Vice President Richard Cheney, who is widely viewed as unpopular, his arguments seem to be hitting home. As Stephen F. Hayes of the Weekly Standard put it, "He's not only changing the debate about U.S. national security policy, he's winning it."
And fifth, America's enemies have a way of reminding us that we're still in danger. Recent advances by the Taliban in Pakistan, and Iran's rebuff of the president's diplomatic outreach, are registering with the American people. They will insist that the country be protected.
The political left was heady when President Obama was inaugurated. But, on national security, it may be losing out to reality. It would be more than ironic if the most left-leaning man ever elected president wound up as the nemesis of the very people who boosted him to office.