National Greatness Liberalism

Via Matt, here's Chris Bowers, complaining about Barack Obama’s too-narrow framing of the benefits of withdrawal from Iraq:

The Iraq war is our major national project right now, equivalent to the Apollo program or the New Deal. Do we want that as our national project? I don't think many Americans would agree. Do we want a series of transactions to specific demographic groups and issues to be our national project? Even if is vastly preferable to making the Iraq war our national project, the truth is that isn't very appealing either. We need a different framing around what we want our national project to be, and we need a Democratic leader who is willing to make that case to the country as a whole.

Tell me that instead of the Iraq war, maintaining a massive global military deployment or doling out a series of narrowly targeted government programs, we are going to do other great things as a nation. Tell me that we are going to have a New Deal for America. Tell me we are going to build a Great Society. Tell me that we are going to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Tell me that we are going to win and end the cold war. Hell, even tell me that we are going to secure freedom around the world, because at least that is a national project that sounds worthwhile. These are the sort of transformative proposals we need from Democrats, and right now we just don't have any. Technocratic, transactional politics just is not as appealing, and ultimately secures a non-ideological mandate and a lack of purpose for the country as a whole. Until we offer just such a sense of purpose, we will never complete the progressive realignment towards which the progressive movement has been building for nearly a decade. Fighting for working families, homeowners, and Social Security recipients, however noble, just doesn't cut it.

One of the bigger internal tensions facing the Democratic Party if and when it assumes real power, I suspect, will be the division between the sort of meliorist liberalism on display in, say, this Democracy symposium (some of whose contents, as Reihan notes, could easily be swiped by a reformist conservatism) and the impatient desire among progressives like Bowers for a vastly more ambitious left-wing politics - a “national-greatness liberalism,” if you will, that harkens back to the salad days of the New Deal and the Great Society. Obama has done a masterful job straddling this divide: His rhetoric of change and transformation has been pitched to Bowers’ frequency, but his paeans to post-partisanship and his specific policy proposals have struck a more cautious, technocratic note. This two-step, though, has made it difficult to tell exactly what sort of President he’d be (a Burkean Democrat? the Reagan of Progressivism?), and it almost guarantees that an Obama Presidency will leave some liberal factions feeling disappointed and betrayed.

My own preference, I should add, is for something closer to the sort of politics that leaves Bowers cold. A “technocratic, transactional” agenda that seeks to head off long-term dangers with policies targeted to key constituencies seems vastly preferable to a crusading, self-aggrandizing spirit that wants a national project, dammit, and doesn’t care what that project is. I’m all for fostering a sense of urgency in our politics: Our book does call for Republicans to “save the American dream,” after all. But that urgency should be directed against real and pressing problems; it shouldn’t be summoned up for the sake of providing “purpose” to American life, or ensuring that the right people get to run the government for the next decade or two.

Moreover, it seems passing strange that someone like Bowers, who seems almost completely agnostic about what, precisely, our “national project” ought to be (another moon landing! another Great Society! securing freedom around the globe!), is nonetheless willing to dismiss out of hand the possibility that America’s current burdens in Iraq shouldn't be lightly set aside.