In his new book on the Bush presidency, "The Right Man," former Bush speechwriter David Frum offers an analysis of "compassionate conservatism" that includes a nice throwaway line about liberals.
"Bush described himself as a 'compassionate conservative,' " Frum writes, "which sounded less like a philosophy than a marketing slogan: Love conservatism but hate arguing about abortion? Try our new compassionate conservatism -- great ideological taste, now with less controversy."
Then came Frum's line on liberals: "Conservatives disliked the 'compassionate conservative' label in the same way that people on the left would dislike it if a Democratic candidate for president called himself a 'patriotic liberal.' "
Frum's point is fair enough: Conservatives hate having to add the adjective "compassionate" to their label, because doing so implies that they once lacked compassion. Liberals presumably would dislike adding "patriotic" to their label because doing so would imply that they once lacked love for their country.
Nonetheless, Bush was smart to embrace the compassionate conservative idea. He knew perfectly well that a large number of Americans were suspicious -- for good reason, I'd argue, but never mind -- that conservatives really didn't care much about the poorest in our midst.
Compassionate conservatism was a brilliant slogan that did three things at once. It acknowledged that conservatives had a problem. It insisted that conservatives really did care about the poor. And it tried to change the debate about poverty by claiming that advocates of programs outside government, especially church-based programs, had better ideas about how to help the poor.
By the same logic, it is time to proclaim loudly and without apology that there is such a thing as "patriotic liberalism."
Of course there should be no need to do this. Liberalism, the philosophy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, waged and won America's war against Nazi Germany and imperial Japan and laid the groundwork for the successful battle against Soviet communism. Jimmy Carter's campaign for human rights created the ideological underpinning of Ronald Reagan's successful Cold War policies.
But contemporary liberals should acknowledge they have a problem. Yes, some of it is a problem of demagoguery by their opponents. On Tuesday, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay accused the Democrats of being "the appeasement party" because of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean's opposition to a war with Iraq.
If opposing a war proposed by a president automatically makes somebody unpatriotic, then Abraham Lincoln was an unpatriotic appeaser for opposing the Mexican War as a young congressman in the 1840s.
In fact, liberals are split on this war, and most opponents of Bush's policies share the general revulsion toward Saddam Hussein's regime and do not engage in reflexive anti-Americanism.
But whatever the cause may be, the fact is that the link between liberalism and patriotism is not as automatic in the public mind now as it was in FDR's day. In the wake of 9/11, that's a genuine problem for liberals. The solution is not defensiveness but an aggressive attempt to define patriotic liberalism.
It would include a strong emphasis on service to the country. Congress should pass the bill proposed by Sens. John McCain and Evan Bayh to expand service opportunities for young Americans so that 250,000 slots would be available for those who want to give a year to their country. Short-term enlistments in the military should be encouraged.
Patriotic liberals would support the call of a commission convened by CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civil Learning and Engagement, and the Carnegie Corp. to have our schools place a new emphasis on civic education. This would include a genuine rigor in the teaching of government and history and a new emphasis on extracurricular activities now endangered by budget cuts.
A patriotic liberalism would contrast itself to a radical individualism that rejects any idea of a "common good." It would emphasize both rights and responsibilities. It would tell corporations moving offshore to escape taxes that they have obligations to their country at a time of war and domestic threats. It would urge that we spend what's needed to defend ourselves at home against terrorism.
It would argue that the preservation of freedom is a common project requiring a commitment of citizens to one another across the lines of class, race and gender. It would insist that a free republic will not prosper if too many of its citizens feel deprived of opportunities.
Patriotic liberalism would declare that we are all in this together. That's old-fashioned. At the moment, it would also be a radical challenge to the status quo.