Politicians like Pelosi, Schumer and Hoyer were just coming into their own. The lesson they took was that the party had gotten too liberal in the late ’60s and ’70s, and the Reagan Revolution was payback. They became convinced that the United States was a center-right country and that they had to accede to that unfortunate reality. For that reason, the wing of the party that had backed Ted Kennedy in the primaries against Carter in 1980 could be safely ignored. Reagan won a landslide reelection four years later. Maybe the country just wasn’t into Democrats. In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis let a nearly 20-point lead in the polls slip away as he lost to Reagan’s hapless vice president, the tongue-tied patrician George H.W. Bush, despite the Iran-contra scandal and eight years of GOP control. That only further persuaded the Democratic elite that liberalism was on the outs.

They kept finding proof: When Bill Clinton beat Bush and Ross Perot by pulling in 43 percent of the vote in 1992, it represented a triumph of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. When Hillarycare went down in flames and took the House majority with it in 1994, liberalism was again at fault. “I regret very much the efforts on health-care reform were badly misunderstood,” Hillary Clinton said after the ’94 bloodbath, “ . . . and then used politically against Democrats. So I take responsibility for that, and I am very sorry about that.”…

Again and again, Democrats since Reagan have gone out of their way to convince the country that they’re not tax-and-spend liberals. When the Clintons and President Barack Obama pushed for universal health care, they framed the fight not in moral terms but with technocratic claims that expanding coverage and reforming the system would reduce long-term budget deficits.