Michael Gerson, until recently, one of President Bush’s top speechwriters, now a top columnist with gigs at the Washington Post and Newsweek (as well as a spot at the Council on Foreign Relations), wants to warn the world that conservatism is in peril. The argument is as follows: Deepening public discontent with the Republican party, coupled with perpetual squabbling among conservative leaders is leading to decline and failure. The Right now stands upon a precipice. On one side lies a way forward, and on the other side lies… Former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey?
Armey is the chairman of FreedomWorks, the organization which I lead, so I am certainly biased, but pardon me for a moment if I say, “Huh?” In a recent column, Gerson chided Armey for his opposition to the government health-care boondoggle Medicare, and accused “anti-government” conservatives, like Armey, of putting the movement at risk with their adherence to free-market ideology.
For Gerson, Armey’s antipathy toward big-government policy is a symbol of all that’s wrong with conservatism. But for the rest of us, it should be telling that Gerson finds so much to dislike in such a basic conservative stance. No, Armey isn’t who’s at fault here, and neither is free-market economics. Rather, it is Gerson’s way — his flagrant disregard for conservatism’s historical underpinnings, along with the ideas the he promoted in the White House, and continues to peddle now — that represents the true threat to conservatism.
Needless to say, Gerson doesn’t see it that way. No, he aims to pin the movement’s failures on those conservatives who maintain a consistent, principled opposition to big-government programs:
Anti-government conservatives, once again, seem intent on leaving out some of the best elements of the conservative tradition. They have posed a false choice. On one side, they assert, is liberal statism, the accumulation of coercive governmental power. On the other side, they argue, is the philosophy of freedom…
It’s funny that Gerson portrays this as a false dichotomy, because he seems to thrive on selling them to others. Later in his column, he suggests that conservatism is torn between “libertarianism and Catholic social thought.” Surely Gerson, a man who claims to be concerned with the direction of conservative politics, has heard of Frank Meyer. Meyer, writing in the pages of early National Review, proposed something that came to be known as fusionism — a melding of traditionalist ideas with limited-government policies. What Meyer argued, as have many conservatives, is that there’s no reason for one to feel forced to choose between freedom and morality. On the contrary, liberty leads to virtue.
It’s true that there has always been some tension on the Right between traditionalists and small-government proponents, but the coalition has also been conservatism’s greatest strength. By arguing that one must pick one or the other, Gerson is indicating a willingness to hack off a huge chunk of the conservative coalition — all the while claiming that this is the way to save it.
Similarly, Gerson’s jab at Armey on Medicare invents a binary option set where none exists. In another column, Gerson approvingly quotes long-shot presidential candidate Mike Huckabee as saying, “I’m a conservative. But if that means I have to close my eyes to poverty and hunger, I’m not going to do that.” Being a conservative doesn’t mean any such thing. But neither does it mean that one ought to support wasteful, ineffective programs that appropriate taxpayer money for poorly managed charity work. One needn’t be Scrooge to recognize the folly of publicly funded social programs.
Gerson uses this logic on a regular basis to support his policies of choice. Foreign aid is among his favorites, but most anything covered by the words “social justice” — long a buzz-phrase amongst the radical Left — seems to suit his purposes.
Maybe that’s not surprising, considering who Gerson lionizes. They say you can tell the measure of a man by the company keeps, and if that’s so, Gerson’s political heroes ought to cause skepticism amongst conservatives. On a recent Hardball appearance, he spoke approvingly of Franklin Roosevelt, the man who bears most historical responsibility for our current government bloat. Gerson also said that his first political hero was Jimmy Carter. At other times, he has waxed lovingly about the pleasures of hanging out in the pseudo-revolutionary company of coffee shops that idolize left-wing icons, like Che Guevera. Meanwhile, he derides Freidrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. What’s next? Friedman and Goldwater replaced with Keynes and Marx? Gerson’s disdain for conservatism’s ideological forefathers is blatant, and he seems to be inventing his own conservative canon as he goes along.
And indeed, he wants to reinvent the entire idea of conservative politics and what it should stand for. Gerson wants to transform conservatism into a vehicle for emotional and spiritual uplift. He writes that a necessary component of presidential politics is a “vision of justice and hope that includes the whole country,” and warmly refers to his favorite left wing coffee shop as spreading “the brush fires of suburban radicalism.” He worries that the conservative movement’s “emphasis on spending restraint and limited government … [is] hardly morally inspiring.” Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and William F. Buckley, just to name a few, almost certainly would have thought otherwise.
But what’s important to note is that it’s indicative of Gerson’s worrisome approach to governing. In his world, it’s not just about creating policy that works, but policy that makes him feel good. He doesn’t want government to get out of the way; he wants to use it to help him find meaning.
That notion, that politics should be primarily about catering to one’s feelings and passions, is the foundation for nearly everything Gerson writes. But it’s a notion that’s antithetical to everything conservatism has historically stood for, and it allows him to reconstruct conservatism into whatever shape pleases him at the moment. In other words, he’s invented his own political movement — call it Gersonism — and now hopes to confuse conservatives into thinking their movement, and his, are one and the same. I suspect — and hope — he’ll find that most aren’t that foolish, with one notable exception: He’s clearly already convinced himself.
–Matt Kibbe is president of FreedomWorks.