So we did liberalism for about a half-century, and then we tried conservatism for a while, about three decades in fact (time flies when you're having fun), but now we're tired of that too. So what's next? That, very crudely, is the political question of the next couple of years.
Maybe the midterm election was just about Iraq, and maybe by 2008 that will be over and forgotten, and the conservative long march to hegemony will resume. Or maybe American voters are sorry they ran away from home and are ready to return to liberalism. But neither of these seems likely, does it? Americans want something new. But what?
Actually, it's pretty clear what Americans want. They want an end to partisan bickering. They want pragmatic solutions, not ideological posturing. They want leaders who reject politics as usual and put the country's interests ahead of the party's. They want a government that will do the right thing, regardless of whether it is "liberal" or "conservative." They don't like labels. And, oh yes, they are tired of spin.
It's been decades, of course, since any important politician admitted to being a liberal. In a reissue of her book It Takes a Village, Senator Hillary Clinton indulges in yin-yangery worthy of her husband's notable indecision about boxers vs. briefs. "Most of us would describe ourselves as 'middle of the road'--liberal in some areas, conservative in others, moderate in most, neither exclusively pro- nor anti-government," and so on. Senator Barack Obama, in his book The Audacity of Hope, concedes only that his mother was a liberal of the romantic, pre-1967 variety, most emotionally engaged with things like the space program.
By contrast until recently, there was no shortage of politicians proudly claiming the label "conservative." Now, the only serious presidential candidate who calls himself a conservative is former Governor Mitt Romney--and he clings to the label because, based on his record, he obviously isn't one. Senator Sam Brownback, who calls himself a conservative and actually is one, isn't considered serious for that very reason. Meanwhile, Senator John McCain, who is serious, calls himself a "commonsense conservative," thus implying that most conservatives lack common sense. This is even more insulting than George W. Bush's "compassionate conservative" of 2000 election because common sense is considered, by conservatives, to be a specifically conservative virtue. Unlike, say, compassion.
This postpartisan era everybody wants is not going to happen, and the great longing for it is childish. What Americans say they want--or even what they think they want--needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Their objection, very often, is less to politics than to arithmetic. Do they want our health-care system fixed? Yes. Do they want Social Security and Medicare on a more solid footing? Absolutely. Will they pay for these things? Not a chance. There are no pragmatic, nonideological solutions to the big question of what the government should do and what it shouldn't. You can have your government programs and pay for them, like a good liberal, or you can have your tax cuts and forgo the programs, like a good conservative. Asking for both is the opposite of pragmatic.