The subtitle of Michael Gerson’s book Heroic Conservatism is: "Why Republicans Need to Embrace America’s Ideals (And Why They Deserve to Fail If They Don’t.)" What does he mean by “America’s Ideals”? The principles expressed in the country’s founding documents? No, he means liberal policies and assumptions that have dominated American life over the last four decades. Which renders the subtitle meaningless because history teaches us that when Republicans swallow those bad ideas they fail.
"Compassionate conservatism" is a principal source of the GOP’s malaise. Larger and larger doses of it can only finish the GOP off. It is strange that Gerson is described as the brains behind Bush; he seemed more interested in serving as his heart. Yet the all-heart, little-head liberalism he essentially endorses has yielded mainly cruel results, hurting the people it claims to help.
On close examination, Gerson’s "heroic conservatism" largely consists of ratifying, or at best slightly amending, destructive liberal policies. "Compassionate conservatism" is, to put it bluntly, a cowardly retreat from conservatism. It is comprised of a craven submission to the media’s politically correct expectations and the Democrats’ decades-long mau-mauing. To take one example, what exactly is heroic about working with Ted Kennedy to enlarge the Department of Education?
The juvenile game that the left has been playing for years underpins most of Gerson’s harrumphing. It boils down to the idea that, if you don’t endorse our specific proposals for expanding the federal government, then, well, you just don’t care about people. This assumes — antihistorically — that liberalism (and its Republican facsimiles) is more intensely concerned with, and more effective at securing, the common good than is traditional conservatism.
The left’s good intentions (of which Gerson apparently finds traditional conservatives deficient) do not translate into good results, and simply labeling traditional conservatism heartless doesn’t make it so.
Yet such sophistical blather is the foundation on which Gerson makes his case. He describes those who oppose his specific ideas as "anti-government." No, they just think the federal government is likely to make problems worse and damage the common good. And by "anti-government," he is referring to the federal government. His "anti-government" strawmen – among which we should count ourselves — support a larger role for state and local government in accordance with the principles of the Constitution.
Gerson credits "Roman Catholic social thought" with influencing his compassionate conservatism. But that doesn’t mean a whole lot, as he seems to be referring to tendentious interpretations of papal encyclicals from scholars who mistake big-government policy prescriptions for Roman Catholic social thought. Gerson gives lip service to the "principle of subsidiarity" articulated by the Catholic tradition but seems oblivious to the myriad ways his pet causes violate it. They all seem to involve the federal government doing what states, localities, and the people can and should be doing for themselves (and won’t start doing as long as the federal government keeps growing.)
Gerson’s shallow understanding of the principle of subsidiarity is also seen in his we-are-the-world foreign policy visions: not only must America’s federal government usurp the authority of state and local governments, it should also take responsibility for the failings of non-American governments. Whether it is Alabama or Africa, Gerson apparently believes that the federal government should swoop down and omnisciently solve problems. Gerson noted with pride in a Washington Post column that "contrary to some angry and uninformed accusations, condom distribution by America in the developing world increased 70 percent in the first four years of President Bush’s emergency AIDS plan."
Here we see the fuzziness that even enters into Gerson’s compassionate-conservative morality. Just as modern liberal notions dictating the size of the federal government determine political philosophy for him, so political correctness leads him to downplay, and sometimes shave off, the edges of traditional morality. He has let it be known that he doesn’t care for the "narrowness" of the Religious Right. Apparently it is too preoccupied with the Ten Commandments and should spend more time extolling American-backed condom distribution in Africa.
It is interesting to learn that Michael Gerson was responsible for Bush’s 1999 attack on Robert Bork for allegedly overstating America’s moral decay. He chides himself for causing Bush political troubles but still considers Bork a "pessimist." But so what if he is a pessimist if he is he right?
For all of his breast-beating about morality, Gerson is fashionably obtuse about the depth of America’s cultural crisis and doesn’t seem to mind all that much the year-after-year erosion in hardheaded traditional morality which explains it. So while Gerson might badmouth "libertarianism" on size-of-government issues, he falls back on it whenever the culture war gets too sticky and dishes up platitudes about tolerance and pluralism.
Compassionate conservatism is not heroic conservatism but tired liberalism in a modified form, presented with lots of pretentious preening that masks a public-relations-driven betrayal of sound principle.
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