The Breakfast Table

The Return of the L-Word?

Dear Brent,

Well, I know Bradley’s formal announcement is hardly news–he’s been running for president for years now, hasn’t he?–but I was struck by the stories this morning. Never mind the “aw shucks” stuff: We expected that. Also the now de rigueur claims that he’ll restore the dignity of the Oval Office, won’t be driven by polls, etc., etc. What interested me was his unabashed, old-fashioned, capital-L-liberal pitch. He’s really running on the idea of helping poor people–“strengthening the weak” and “challenging the strong” and spreading the new stock-market prosperity to the least among us.

I’m not complaining: more power to him if he can pull it off. But it sort of amazes me that he thinks it will work in late 1990s America. Just a few years ago, the very word “liberal” was taboo. And the ever astute Clinton would no more claim to be a liberal than he would try a tell a story about himself without spin: Remember all that stuff about “triangulating” and the Democrats as the party of the suburban middle class? I didn’t think I’d see another declared liberal Democrat in my lifetime (outside of New York City, of course). And what I really wonder is: Could Bradley be on to something–politically?

Is the me-too generation finally growing up and looking beyond itself? Is the comfortable middle class so comfortable now that people feel they can afford to be liberal again? Arthur Schlesinger Jr. always told us this would happen: that American politics run in cycles of conservative constraint and liberal largesse–and, I suppose, in his own way, Bush too has signaled that he sees a new mood dawning. With “compassionate conservatism,” he, too, is banking on a sense that the public wants to think of itself as generous again now: generous, caring, altruistic and–yes, let’s face it–liberal. The question remains, of course, how? What can we as a nation really do to help the poor and the left out? And Bush’s ostensibly conservative ideas could turn out to be more effectively liberal than Bradley’s more conventionally liberal ones. But I must say, I’m struck by the shift in rhetoric–and what it says about both men’s readings of the national mood.

Which brings us back to where we were yesterday: Are there other means of achieving equal opportunity than with preferences? It sounds as if you and I agree completely on that: The answer is education and what I call “development.” Narrow the gap in black-white school achievement and you won’t need to put your thumb on the scale of college admissions or hiring or promotions or anything else. (And yes, I agree, Ward Connerly took a principled stand for just that long-term solution when he endorsed the ACLU suit pressing for better schools in poor areas of California.) But the question here, too, it seems to me, is precisely how do you do it. How do we make the schools really work for poor kids? What do we do about the parenting that doesn’t prepare them for school? How do we counteract the peer pressure that tells them not to bother in class because it’s “acting white”? And who exactly should be doing all this–the government or the charitable private sector, or some combination of the two?

I’m sorry if I sound like a broken record, but I always come back to the same question: the means. I’m thrilled that the public may be feeling more compassionate now. But that’s only the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it. The devil–and answer–is in the details. We may all be liberals again now, but what exactly are we going to do about it?

All best,