Michael Gerson
WASHINGTON -- In 1950, Lionel Trilling could write, "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition." In 1980, as the Reagan revolution was starting, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan concluded, "Of a sudden, the GOP has become the party of ideas."

Where now is the intellectual center of gravity -- the thrill of innovation, the ideological momentum -- in American politics? Not in the party of Obama.

This failure of imagination was on full display during Barack Obama's address to Congress. In a moment that demanded new policy to cut an ideological knot, or at least new arguments to restart the public debate, Obama saw fit to provide neither. His health speech turned out to be an environmental speech, devoted mainly to recycling. On every important element of his health proposal, he chose to double down and attack the motives of opponents. (Obama was the other public official who talked of a "lie" that evening.) Concerns about controlling health costs, the indirect promotion of abortion and the effect of a new entitlement on future deficits were dismissed but not answered. On health care, Obama takes his progressivism pure and simplistic.

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The emotional core of the speech was a closing request to win one for Ted Kennedy -- an appeal that seemed designed to rally Democrats rather than unite Americans. And that clearly is now the goal. Eke out 60 Senate votes for passage, or perhaps 50 using the riding crop of "reconciliation." Victory without concession (except, maybe, on the already doomed public option). Victory without consensus.

This is the most consistent disappointment of Obama's young term. Given a historic opportunity to occupy the political center, to blur ideological lines, to reset the partisan debate through unexpected innovation, Obama has taken the most tired, most predictable agenda in American politics -- the agenda of congressional liberalism -- and made it his own. Elected on the promise to transcend old arguments of left and right, Obama has systematically reinforced them on domestic issues. A pork-laden stimulus. A highly centralized health reform. Eight months into Obama's term, American politics is covered in the cobwebs of past controversies. Obama has supporters, but he has ceased trying for converts.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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