Liberals are more confident about their future than at any other point since 1968. They think the long period of conservative dominance of American politics is over. Read their magazines, and you'll find articles on how to make the most of the dawning liberal moment--or on how Republicans should be treated after they lose power. (They are to be shunned and occasionally pilloried.)
Some liberals criticize Hillary Clinton because, having spent the bulk of her career in the conservative era, she is too cautious. She lives in terror of a latent conservatism that no longer exists in the land. The country has moved left, they say, and Barack Obama is the candidate of audacious liberal hope.
The case for liberal good cheer starts with the 2006 elections, which went better for congressional Democrats than any other election in decades. It continues with public-opinion data showing renewed confidence in government activism, and demographic trends that favor Democrats. Most Hispanic voters prefer the Democrats, and their numbers are growing. Young voters, too, have been voting for the Democrats.
The presidential race also shows that the liberal optimists are onto something. Both parties are moving left. Both of the Democratic candidates are more hostile to trade than the last Democratic President. The likely Republican nominee, John McCain, has a bill to fight global warming.
So change may be in the air. But it wasn't a large ideological shift by the public that produced the Democratic gains of 2006. It was the public's revulsion at a Republican Party that seemed unable to see that we were losing in Iraq, let alone do anything about it, and that was sunk in scandal. Liberals can still blow their opportunity by overreaching--and they may already be doing it.
Clinton and Obama have the most ambitious health-care proposals since the Clintons' plan died in 1994. Hillary Clinton's proposal, in particular, attempts to avoid some of the pitfalls of that earlier effort. Liberals hope the public's anxiety about health care, currently running high, will help them finally achieve universal coverage after six decades of trying.
But how strong is the public's demand for universal coverage? In the fall, Republicans will be able to say that their proposals would make coverage portable, give patients more control and increase the number of people with insurance--all without raising taxes, increasing spending or threatening what people value in their current arrangements. Voters might well conclude that it is a good deal, even if it does not cover everyone. Obama has attacked Clinton's plan for forcing people to buy insurance whether they want it or not. Most experts agree that universal coverage requires such heavy-handedness. Republicans can win this argument or at least reduce the Democrats' traditional advantage on health care.
Abortion may present other problems. Clinton has put a lot of work into moderating her image on abortion, saying that abortions are a "tragedy" and that she wants to see fewer of them.
While trying to appeal to liberal primary voters, though, she tried to get to Obama's left. As a state senator, Obama had voted "present" on a bill that gave legal protections to neonates who survive abortions. She said he should have voted no. He said his vote was part of a strategy worked out by the bill's opponents. Opposition to this type of pro-life legislation is, however, well to the left of public opinion. After all, similar federal legislation passed the Senate unanimously. Clinton had the political sense to vote yes. But back then she was positioning herself for a general election, not a tough primary campaign.
The primaries are pushing the Democrats too far to the left on some issues. And that's not the only way they're hurting the Democrats' chances. Neither Clinton nor Obama is entirely to blame for the racial overtones of the primary campaign, but they make the problem of patching the party together harder.
The point is not that liberals are doomed. It is that political trends can reverse, and quickly. In March 1991, the first President Bush had a 90% approval rating. The next year, he got only 37% of the vote. Republicans thought they had secured a permanent majority in 2004, only to see it collapse. Harry Reid, the leader of the Senate Democrats, didn't think his party would win a majority in 2006--and then it did. The liberal moment may turn out to be just a moment.