By 1968, Walter Lippmann, the dean of liberal columnists, had concluded that liberalism had reached the end of its tether.
In that liberal epoch, the 1960s, the Democratic Party had marched us into an endless war that was tearing America apart. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society had produced four "long, hot summers" of racial riots and a national crime rate that had doubled in a decade. The young were alienated, the campuses aflame. Lippmann endorsed Richard Nixon.
For 40 years, no unabashed liberal would be elected president. Jimmy Carter won one term by presenting himself as a born-again Christian from Georgia, a peanut farmer, Naval Academy graduate and nuclear engineer. Bill Clinton ran as a centrist. So toxic had the term "liberal" become that liberals dropped it and had themselves rebaptized as "progressives."
Barack Obama, however, ran unapologetically as a man of the left. An opponent of the Iraq war, he had compiled a voting record to the left of Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont. And Obama proudly placed his signature achievement, Obamacare, right alongside, and in the tradition of, liberal giants FDR and LBJ. This is the new progressivism of the 21st century, Obama was saying, and I the transformational figure who will usher in the post-Reagan era. Where Clinton failed, I will succeed.
But now that Obamacare is coming to be perceived as a political catastrophe, not only does it threaten Obama's place in history, it could invalidate, indeed, eviscerate the defining idea of the Democratic Party itself. For Democrats are the Party of Government. They believe that government is more nobly motivated than a private sector that runs on self-interest and the profit motive, and that government can achieve goals private enterprise could never accomplish. To liberals, government is us, the personification of the nation.
Social Security, Medicare, Medicare and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are monuments to this belief. So, too, are the world wars fought and won under liberal presidents Woodrow Wilson and FDR. It was 1968, the Tet Offensive, the assassinations, the urban riots, the campus anarchy, the smash-up of the Democratic Party in the streets of Chicago that caused the national recoil from liberalism that lasted for 40 years.
Now consider what the rollout of Obamacare is doing, not only to this president and his administration, but also to the idea that government has the solution to America's problems. Though they had as long as World War II to get it done, Obama's crowd could not even produce a working website. Now we learn the White House was alerted to the website problems in March but plunged ahead.
Obama's reputation for competence has been shredded, and, so, too, has his reputation for truthfulness.
With millions losing their health insurance because of Obamacare mandates, we learn that Obama and his team knew this was inevitable, even as they reassured us, "If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan. Period."
The brutal truth: Our president got his legacy program passed by deceiving the American people in a giant swindle.
Not only have millions lost their health care plans, tens of millions more may lose theirs at year's end when they learn that their employer's health care plans also do not meet Obamacare mandates.
Hillarycare cost the Democrats the House in 1994. Obamacare, the love child of Hillarycare, could cost Democrats the Senate in 2014.
But what makes this a disaster not just for a party but a philosophy is that Obamacare is liberalism incarnate. It is premised on the idea that progressives, starting from scratch, can redesign a health care system, 16 percent of the economy, and make it more fair, more just and more efficient for us all. Obamacare was an act of hubris by an administration of talking heads most of whom never ran anything in their lives. And what we are witnessing is the antithesis of what we were promised.
So confident were they in the wonks that wrote the bill that Nancy Pelosi could say, "We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it."
Seven weeks in, the website is not fixed. Millions have lost their health care plans. Quality hospitals are being cut out of the program as too costly. Individuals are being offered plans inferior to what they had in terms of benefits, but with far more costly premiums.
The crisis for Obama, his party, and his philosophy is that this is not only a nightly national story; it is a daily story in every state. And the anecdotes of debacles have been piling up, one upon another, for seven weeks. They do not cease, and there is no end in sight. Nothing, it appears, will interrupt the litany of personal woes before Democrats, in panic, cut themselves loose of Obamacare and try to swim away from the Lusitania.
It will likely be a long time before another Democratic president dares again another such Great Leap Forward.
(Syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan has been a senior advisor to three presidents, twice a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and the presidential nominee of the Reform Party in 2000. He won the New Hampshire Republican Primary in 1996.)