Before the 2008 crash, it seemed like this new liberalism might be poised for a long run of domestic policy triumphs: First health care, then climate-change legislation, then card check and immigration reform and so on down the list. But in the wake of the Great Recession, our rendezvous with fiscal retrenchment has been accelerated, and the chances for a rolling series of progressive victories have diminished apace. Barring an extraordinary economic boom, the American situation will soon require the slow and painful restructuring of the welfare state that liberals have spent decades building. This environment may or may not lead to a revival of D.L.C.-style centrism among the Democrats, but at the very least it’s hard to see it proving congenial to further adventures in sweeping social legislation.
I’ve talked to liberals who seem to understand this: The reckoning is coming, they allow, and the theory of health care reform has always been to get everybody inside the barrel before it goes over the falls. (I’d lay good money that this is Peter Orszag’s view of the matter.) But seen in this light, the health care victory looks less like the dawn of a bold new era, and more like the final lurch forward before a slow retreat. Liberals have finally captured Moscow, you might say; now they have to hope that it turns out better for them, and for America, than it did for Napoleon.