When I think about what I like most about American liberalism, I think of my father's great, good friend, Smiling Bill.
A Roosevelt Democrat, Bill believes in using the power of the government (and the money of rich people) to ameliorate the pain of the poor and lighten the load of the "little man."
The son of a large, upwardly mobile Irish Catholic family, Bill started out on a familiar path for men in the middle of the American Century: college (Notre Dame) and then the service (Air Force in the Aleutians) before starting a family and career.
While my old man followed a similar path straight through (51 years with my late mother and a career as a corporate commander), Bill took a more circuitous route.
Bill's midlife change in direction gave my father one of his best lines. When a big business associate asked my dad how the economy was back in West Virginia, he quipped, "I don't know, but my stockbroker just joined the Peace Corps."
Bill is now an artist and doer of quiet good deeds who shares a home in the hills with his lovely wife and scruffy dog. If a hopeless drunk needs a ride to rehab or the nuns at the after-school center can't make budget, Smiling Bill is there.
For more than 30 years, he and my father have been perfecting their "Grumpy Old Men" routine over tennis games and piles of pancakes that obliterated the benefits of their on-court exertions.
During the Bush years, Bill razzed my father mercilessly about the "Republican wars" and crony capitalism, arguing that George W. Bush operated the government for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. It was payback for too many Clinton jokes the decade before.
A year ago, their harassment cycle promised to continue with my father teasing Smiling Bill about Barack Obama's socialist agenda and wimpy foreign policy. But as the year went on, Bill wasn't smiling anymore.
One morning as I fried eggs for them on a visit home, Bill said he was "so disappointed" that he "felt sick" about Obama.
Obama's deal with the drugmakers to block reimported pharmaceuticals from Canada and acquiescence on a second surge in Afghanistan had dashed his hopes. Bill had believed that the little man would finally have an advocate in Washington but found that Obama had other priorities.
I've had reason to think of Bill almost every day since then as the administration and Democrats in Congress have continued to justify cynical actions with liberal goals.
The president has argued that Congress needed to pass his health plan, despite widespread opposition in the center and Right, because otherwise the Democratic base would desert them in this fall's elections.
Now, as Massachusetts voters are demonstrating, Democrats might be in worse trouble with the Left if they actually pass the plan.
The legislation has become an appalling welter of special interest deals crafted in secret and funded through middle-class taxes and impractical cuts to services for the poor and elderly.
Worst for Obama, it shows him to be neither liberal nor a policy pragmatist, but a politician who favors expedient means to self-preservation.
Liberals of the Washington breed say that giving the federal government responsibility for all health care is the first step toward a single-payer system. They believe what's on the cusp of passage will fail in practice, but that its failure will lead to successive reforms that eventually fulfill the New Deal dream.
To conscientious liberals, selling out to Big Pharma and the insurance industry sounds idiotic. But they do not feel the burning need to beat Republicans, by any means necessary, as their representatives in Washington do.
The Democratic Party is begging Massachusetts voters to give them the 60th Senate vote they need to finally squeeze through a scrofulous health bill and get on with the business of the next election.
But in a weird referendum on the plan, ultra-liberal Bay Staters don't seem moved by the pleas, expressing apathy or even hostility about helping Obama save face by sending him a winning health care vote in Martha Coakley. Watching her bag contributions from drug and insurance lobbyists on Tuesday night in Washington couldn't have helped their affection for Coakley or the plan.
She may still prevail, but Democrats in Washington may soon fear victory on health care as much as they once feared defeat.
Chris Stirewalt is the political editor of The Washington Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com.