Maybe pragmatism isn’t enough after all.

President Obama regularly speaks disdainfully of “ideology,” says he is focused only on “what works,” and loves to be described as “pragmatic.”

Well, sure. No one ever admits to being an ideologue, and as historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed many years ago, democratic government should be about “the search for remedy.”

But there comes a time when first principles need to be articulated. The economic crisis has let loose a furious philosophical debate over the meltdown, its causes and its cures. Conservatives have entered this fight with guns blazing while progressives have hidden behind a Maginot Line armed only with the word pragmatism.

This is surprising. Not for 80 years has there been a more opportune time to make the case for the bankruptcy of conservative ideas because the economic downturn came after nearly every conservative nostrum had become national policy.

Deregulating the financial markets, we were told, would do wonders for growth, as would slashing the income taxes of the wealthy and levies on capital gains and dividends. We were urged to trust the Wall Street wizards creating those innovative financial instruments and to believe that jacking up CEO pay relative to everyone else’s would be splendid for corporate performance. Don’t worry, we were assured, about rising inequalities.

And it has all come crashing down.

Conservatives know that if the narrative I just offered takes hold, they and their ideas will be forced into the wilderness for a generation or more. So they are shrewdly changing the story line, trying to pretend that the last eight years or even the last 30 years don’t matter. They are trying to blame everything on Obama policies that have been operational for just a few weeks. And they are fighting for keeps.

They are right to do so, because ideologically, the country is now on a knife edge. The conventional view, pushed hard by conservatives, is that we are a “center-right” nation because polls tend to show that there are roughly three conservatives for every two liberals, with the rest of the country in the middle.

But a new report released Wednesday by the Center for American Progress suggests a more complicated and interesting picture. Rather than rely on the three-way liberal/moderate/conservative ideological matrix, the center’s poll offered respondents five choices: the old three, plus “progressive” and “libertarian.”

The result: 36 percent of Americans say they are conservative or libertarian — all but 2 percent of these are conservatives — while 31 percent are liberal or progressive, split roughly evenly between the two groups. Moderates (and a small number who picked some other label) accounted for 31 percent.

The researchers then pressed moderates to choose up sides. When their choices were added to the others, the result was a nation split in half: 48 percent conservative or libertarian, 47 percent liberal or progressive.

Analyzing a long list of questions about specific issues, the center’s researchers concluded that Americans are “solidly center-left in their ideas about [the] role of government, the economy and domestic politics and somewhat less so on cultural and social issues.”

Certain conservative themes, notably fears that government spending is “wasteful and inefficient,” remain powerful. “People are quite capable of believing in the need for government investments in education, health and other areas and also believing that government wastes money,” said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the center-left think tank.

The downturn, he added, makes Americans more open to arguments on behalf of “a positive role for government” than they have been for a long time. And it is precisely because of the public’s ideological ambivalence that liberals and progressives need to press their larger arguments on behalf of more economic equality, in defense of government’s necessary role, and against Utopian views of what unfettered capitalism can achieve.

The survey found another important ambivalence: sympathy for free-market capitalism in the abstract, but skepticism about the rich and the rewards they reap. The Obama administration is courting danger if it does not offer a clear moral and philosophical analysis of what went wrong in the economy — and an understandable case for what it’s doing to fix things.

The worst outcome for Obama would be for the public to see his bank rescue efforts as a colossally inefficient waste of money and as an attempt to rescue the financiers from their own foolishness and greed. This would tag the president with the least popular aspects of both liberalism and conservatism. There would be nothing pragmatic about that.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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