Compassion, conservatism, and the GOP
0 comment Friday, September 19, 2014 |
Mona Charen, with whom I find myself agreeing on very little these days, writes about Michael Gerson, the former Bush speechwriter, and his book 'Heroic Conservatism.'
Gerson's sniping memoir
'There were some rhetorically soaring moments in this presidency. At the National Cathedral, three days after 9/11, the president spoke these words to a grieving country:
"On this national day of prayer and remembrance, we ask almighty God to watch over our nation, and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come. We pray that He will comfort and console those who now walk in sorrow. We thank Him for each life we now must mourn, and the promise of a life to come. "
As we have been assured, neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, can separate us from God's love. May He bless the souls of the departed. May He comfort our own. And may He always guide our country."
Beautiful. And perfectly suited to the occasion.
Alas, Gerson's agenda in "Heroic Conservatism" is not to reprise the greatest hits of the Bush presidency but to scold his fellow Republicans for their miserly, cruel and indifferent conservatism, which he contrasts with his own -- well, you've seen the title he gives his version.
This is such an old, old story. Conservatives have been accused of cold-heartedness at least for several generations and maybe longer. But it is a little startling to see this old chestnut revived by a Bush administration insider. ''
It's interesting that Mona praises Gerson for his eloquence, and for the beauty of the words he wrote for Bush at that National Cathedral ecumenical PC photo op (which I saw, and remember well). The second part which she quotes above, complimenting its beauty, is obviously not Gerson's, but a passage from Romans 8. '...neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, can separate us from God's love.''
Interestingly, Gerson is now also being accused of having plagiarized bits of his Heroic Conservatism book from David Frum's White house memoir.
Gerson, not surprisingly, is a fan of Mike Huckabee, another liberal Christian Republican, as we see here :
...Huckabee is a fine debater and a compelling speaker who punches far above his fundraising weight. He has strong conservative credentials. He is solidly pro-life -- in our conversation he was highly critical of Fred Thompson's view that abortion policy should be left to the states. Huckabee supports the troop surge in Iraq. He boasts of being America's first governor to possess a concealed-weapons permit.
But he adds an element that distinguishes him from the rest of a Republican field competing for the title of Mr. Conventionality. "I'm a conservative," Huckabee told me. "But if that means I have to close my eyes to poverty and hunger, I'm not going to do that." This, he said, would be to "refuse a larger allegiance, to my own soul, and also standing before God." "
Overall," he says, "the macro economy is doing very well. . . . But in the micro economy -- how specific groups are doing -- there is a growing disparity between the top and the bottom, and not just the bottom." He worries that even people with a college education are falling behind because of rising insurance costs and fuel prices. "People will only endure this for so many years before there is a revolt. But leaders in the Republican Party seem oblivious to it."
This kind of talk has earned the enmity of fiscal conservatives such as the Club for Growth, which Huckabee has dismissed as the "Club for Greed." "They view everything as accounting," he told me. "For a kid with asthma, who is sitting on the steps of a hospital -- let them [the Club for Growth] have an economic policy that doesn't care about that kid."
As governor of Arkansas, Huckabee occasionally raised taxes but mainly to do what governors are supposed to do: increase teacher pay and improve roads and parks. He is proud of extending health insurance to 70,000 Arkansas children and winning 48 percent of the African American vote -- achievements that would be impressive to most voters but that have been received with yawns from most conservative and Republican leaders.''
Here, Gerson advocates what he calls 'open-arms conservatism', meaning: bleeding-heartism with a Republican face; the social gospel ethic carried out with taxpayers' money.
A Republican Party that does not offer a robust agenda on health care, education reform, climate change and economic empowerment will fade into irrelevance.
But the moral stakes are even higher. What does a narrow, anti-government conservatism have to offer to urban neighborhoods where violence is common and intact families are rare? Very little. What hope does it provide to children in foreign lands dying of diseases that can be treated or prevented for the cost of American small change? No hope. What achievement would it contribute to the racial healing and unity of our country? No achievement at all.
As the Republican candidates attempt to prove themselves the exemplars of conservatism, they should consider what that philosophy can mean: the application of conservative and free-market ideas to the task of helping everyone. ''
Obviously this kind of 'conservatism' can't coexist with small-government conservatism, because it presupposes that the government is in the business of doing what churches and missionaries and volunteers from charitable groups used to do. Government, in the view of the bleeding hearts, is supposed to be daddy and mommy to everybody, compensate for the disparities that inevitably happen in a world in which ability, motivation, and incentive vary among individuals and groups. According to the 'compassionate conservative' view, government is supposed to do everything, up to and including healing the sick and raising the dead, much as Jesus and the original apostles did in the Bible.
John C. Hulsman describes here what is wrong with Gerson's 'heroic conservatism'
...Mr. Gerson calls traditional conservatives "anti-state conservatives," coyly implying that anyone who objects to sweeping, messianic programs--Mr. Gerson loves the idea of the U.S. government spending billions of dollars on AIDS in Africa--is flirting with anarchism. He scoffs at the "unheroic" conservative belief that domestic problems should be solved either by private means or by narrowly gauged government efforts at the local level--that is, at the level closest to the people. He warns: "If Republicans run in future elections with a simplistic anti-government message, ignoring the poor, the addicted, and children at risk, they will lose, and they will deserve to lose."
The "deserve to lose" part of his message is especially galling. The U.S. government has been pouring billions and billions of dollars into the welfare state since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, with results so wayward that, for decades now, a cottage industry has grown up among policy intellectuals to document all the disappointing results and ill effects. The welfare reform of Bill Clinton's first term grew out of such a critique. Still, Mr. Gerson equates "caring" with government spending, as though, self-evidently, yet more "visionary" programs are the best way of dealing with poverty, addiction and children at risk.
To the traditional conservative, it is more heroic--that is, more honest and realistic--to acknowledge that such problems are too deeply ingrained to be solved by a far-away Washington bureaucracy. Traditional conservatives since Edmund Burke have put their faith in the organic forces of society--family, community, civic institutions. In America, such faith has made common cause with commercial dynamism and the opportunities it creates for upward mobility.
For all its Christian urgency, there is not much humility on view in "Heroic Conservatism." The book has a hectoring tone, blithely claiming the moral high ground and ignoring a great deal of chastening experience. Such self-satisfied thinking runs counter to the Burkean temperament, which is painfully aware of the limits, and potential flaws, of even well-intentioned men. For traditional conservatives, societies evolve in an almost geological way--formed by the immense weight of history and culture over vast stretches of time. Grand schemes, even grand religiously driven schemes, do not suddenly "direct" history or solve long-festering problems or, for that matter, remake the world.''
I occasionally hear Republicans arguing against big government do-goodism. But the arguments they are prone to use do not involve the fact that government, at least from the conservative perspective, is not supposed to be mommy and daddy to everyone, or that the American government in particular is not supposed to be some kind of rescuer and messiah of all the world's hard luck cases. Rather, these Republican critics will offer that 'big government liberalism is not good for the minorities who are the intended beneficiaries of the programs.' They will say ''these programs hold minorities back; they are the reason for all the dysfunction in the minority 'communities' and they are the reason for family breakdown and crime and underachievement.'' I fail to see the benefit of making these kinds of arguments; why not appeal to conservative principles or to the Founding Fathers' original vision for our government, rather than using the essentially liberal argument that 'big government does not help minorities who need our help; we should help them by some other means.' Where is the responsibility of the individual in that argument, or where is the responsibility of the supposed 'community leaders' who claim to advocate for their people? Where is the emphasis on family members doing a better job of raising up children or providing for ailing family members and older generations in need of help? And to blame all the disparities in income and achievement on liberal malfeasance is to imply that there really are no other factors other than government, whether big government meddling or lack of government meddling, that factor into the disparities we see.
It doesn't help to make liberal arguments against big government efforts at do-gooding.
Ross Douthat here argues that the Republican party should not return to the 'government-cutting' principles of the past:
Particularly since Gerson's central argument is basically correct: American conservatism needs to stand for something besides government-cutting if it hopes to regain the majority that George W. Bush won (and quickly lost). At its best, Heroic Conservatism is a necessary corrective to the right's mythologizing of its own past, which cultivates the pretense that small-government purity has always been the key to Republican success. By way of rebuttal, Gerson points out that conservatives tend to win elections only when they convince voters that they mean to reform the welfare state, rather than do away with it entirely. This was true of 1990s success stories like Rudy Giuliani in New York and Tommy Thompson in Wisconsin; it was true of the Contract With America, a far less ideological document than right-wing nostalgists make it out to be; and it was true of Ronald Reagan himself, who slowed the growth of government but hardly cut it to the bone. The insight isn't unique to Gerson; it dates back to the original, '70s-vintage neoconservatives. But it seems to be slipping away from the contemporary GOP, whose primary contenders´┐Żsave perhaps for Mike Huckabee´┐Żare falling over one another to prove their small-government bona fides, and whose activists have persuaded themselves that tax cuts and pork-busting will be their tickets back to power.''
Douthat seems to be saying that yes, to adopt the 'heroic conservatism' of Gerson -- and Huckabee -- is to lose conservative principles, but to maintain those principles would doom the GOP to the 'political wilderness.' This is always the refrain of those who say that we have to be pragmatic and win, even if winning means adopting liberal ideas, and essentially doing the liberals' work for them. The idea is just to win, even if winning means becoming liberal.
Since Gerson and his buddy Huckabee like to quote the Bible, I will end with a quote which I think apposite in this context:
"For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'' - Matthew 16:26

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