"American liberals have made scarcely a new proposal for reform in twenty years," John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in 1952. Liberals were living off the patrimony of the New Deal. They still are.
Saving Social Security is the priority of the hour for liberal interest groups, progressive bloggers, and congressional Democrats. If half the energy and intelligence the Democrats spent fighting President Bush's privatization plan went into developing new proposals for reform, they might once more be seen as the party of hope. As it is, divided on taxes, war, and social issues, they achieve unity of purpose only in defending a program enacted in 1935. They may stymie Bush—but at the cost of defining themselves as the party of memory.
For the New Dealers "reform" meant reforming capitalism; it meant state intervention in the economy to increase the economic security and individual freedom of ordinary Americans. That idea, a synthesis of populism and progressivism, was called liberalism. Liberals have been in retreat from liberalism for at least a generation. They defend Social Security, but not the principle of intervention behind the New Deal.
George Lakoff, Bill Moyers, and other commentators have attributed the Democrats' troubles to a lack of funding for liberal think tanks to match that of the conservative Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and the like. But think tanks won't help a party afraid to state its central idea. Think tanks proliferate policies. Democrats already have a policy for every problem. What they lack is a governing philosophy. That's why so many Americans don't know what the party stands for.