During the year following his departure from the White House, Ronald Reagan was visiting New York and lunched one day with a number of his former appointees. About 20 of us gathered in a room at the Sky Club overlooking Manhattan.
It was clear something very specific was on the President’s mind that day. No sooner had we taken our seats at the table than he began, “I only wish more people who served in our administration had understood a basic principle about government.” Then, with emphasis, he declared: “Government is not the solution. Government is the problem!”
So many times I have recalled Reagan’s admonition as we have watched Republicans (sometimes even conservatives) drift into the trap of government as the solution. But never has the memory of the President’s words returned more vividly than the day I began Michael Gerson’s book Heroic Conservatism.
In Your Face
Now Michael Gerson is a splendid writer — arguably one of the best presidential speechwriters ever. As he writes about his life in the Bush presidency, he comes across as a good and conscientious person — motivated by deep religious convictions. It is a thing of beauty when he recreates Bush’s mission to bring freedom to the world in place of tyranny.
But when it comes to conservatives and the conservative movement, Gerson is in your face — and when his book is judged, for all of his essential goodness, he must accept the consequences.
From the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind expansion of the federal government in education to the addition of massive prescription-drug benefits to Medicare, he boasts: “Republicans who feel that the ideology of Barry Goldwater — the ideology of minimal government — has been assaulted are correct.” (Note the clever Gerson cites Goldwater when he means Reagan.)
He seems to regret that the Bush Administration’s expansion of government into domestic policy has been “overshadowed” by national security issues, just as was the case with the Johnson Administration in the 1960s. Again, Gerson is too clever to cite as his model the discredited Great Society or that epitome of waste: Johnson’s War on Poverty. He cites the Civil Rights Act and Medicare. But he boldly says that “were it not for the Iraq War,” Bush Administration expansion of the federal government in education and healthcare “would seem larger, because they are actually quite large.”
You won’t find references in Heroic Conservatism to Calvin Coolidge — or even William McKinley. Instead, only a couple of pages after he calls for “the bold use of government” in America to care for the weak and vulnerable, he approvingly explains that William Jennings Bryan “called his support for progressive causes — from women’s rights to safe working conditions, to progressive taxation — ‘applied Christianity.’”
Where’s He Coming From?
Time and again in reading this book I wondered, politically, where is this dear fellow coming from? One of his greatest moments, he says, was when he succeeded in getting into the 2005 State of the Union address a proposal that would fund training for defense lawyers in death-penalty cases.
I mean I am not so hardhearted that I cannot understand Gerson’s joy over inserting billions into the federal budget for AIDS programs for Africa. But a federal program for training lawyers because they are defending people charged with murder?
I have friends who believe Michael Gerson is a wonderful guy. His Protestant religious convictions are real — even if it is torture to follow his justification for his political philosophy because of its origins in Roman Catholic social thought and its belief that “the justice of any society is measured by the treatment and status of the weak and the oppressed.” Where is Michael Novak when we need him most?
It is instructional, however, to read Gerson explaining his religiously informed view of “social justice as a prophetic vision” at a time when this Believer is struggling to understand the religious origins of Huckabeeism. Maybe we need more than Novak. Maybe we need the words of Christ. “Render unto Caesar…”
Gerson dismisses Steve Forbes as “an elitist” — ignoring the fact that Forbes’s articulate advocacy of tax cuts in the 2000 primary debates brought supply-side principles to Bush’s awareness — just as Jeffrey Bell made a supply-side believer of Democrat Bill Bradley in their debates in the 1978 New Jersey Senate race.
Ignores Tax Cuts
Astonishingly there is not even a mention of the Bush tax cuts in Gerson’s Heroic Conservatism. Those tax cuts were by far the most important domestic legacy of the Bush Administration. They were the foundation of the domestic prosperity that politically saved this President — and Gerson ignores them.
He writes a book called Heroic Conservatism but there is not a mention of such heroic conservatives as William F. Buckley or Whittaker Chambers or Russell Kirk. (But he does conclude, “At some point, Reagan worship descends into silliness.”)
For all his knowledge of religion and theology, Gerson repeatedly demonstrates that he knows amazingly little about modern conservatism and the life and causes of Ronald Reagan. To Gerson, it is as if the conservative movement — that culminated in the political life of Ronald Reagan — never existed.
Take his tribute to the results of welfare reform. Writes Gerson: “Welfare reform that required work had a dramatic effect. In less than a decade, welfare rolls were reduced by 60%. Women went to work and earned more money than they had on welfare. Rates of child poverty went down, hitting all-time lows for African-American children. Most of the poor were fully capable of making responsible decisions when the welfare system no longer sent mixed messages on the need for work and self-sufficiency.”
Absolutely on the money.
But can Gerson not know that the Clinton-signed welfare reform of 1996 was one of the great achievement’s of Ronald Reagan’s life? Apparently not. Gerson asserts: “When welfare reform was proposed in the mid-1990s, a number of conservatives actually opposed it “
Reagan’s Early Welfare Reform
How can the prophet of Heroic Conservatism not know the history of welfare reform? I suppose that when you absorb yourself in theology you may have missed the amazing chronicle of welfare reform that has appeared over the years in HUMAN EVENTS and Reader’s Digest.
Early in his first administration as California’s governor, Reagan assigned a young career government official named Robert Carleson the responsibility of creating welfare reform in California.
Indeed, it was the initial and spectacular success of welfare reform in California that demonstrated Ronald Reagan had the real potential to be President of the United States. The success of California welfare reform fueled a partnership between Reagan and Carleson that would last decades and produce one of the most important victories of the modern conservative movement.
First they had to defeat Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan — the dreaded guaranteed annual income, which attracted in the Nixon era the same kind of idealists who think massive U.S. aid can transform Africa. That guaranteed-income proposal would have killed any chance of a meaningful welfare work requirement — which through the 70s and 80s remained Carleson’s (and Reagan’s) ultimate goal, because they realized there never would be definitive welfare reform without it.
They were focused on welfare reform not just to save taxpayers’ money. What they actually would be saving would be the lives of the people who had been marginalized by addiction to welfare dependency.
Reagan would help Carleson become Commissioner of Welfare in the Ford Administration. In the Reagan Administration, Carleson held a series of high domestic policy posts that enabled him to continue marginal reforms — but the ultimate goal of a real work requirement always was blocked by the Democratic-controlled Congress.
That was changed in 1994 — and in ’96 Carleson helped congressional Republicans fashion a work requirement in welfare reform legislation that — facing re-election — Bill Clinton eventually had to sign.
The Reagan-Carleson welfare reform saga is one of the great stories of our time. Maybe I should forgive Gerson’s relative youth — or understand those theology books are mighty time-consuming — but a writer who would be the architect of the future of conservatism has to understand that welfare reform didn’t originate in 1996.
What’s So ‘Heroic’?
Finally, I had to conclude that for all his great talent as a writer, I simply don’t want to go where Gerson is trying to take us. And neither do American conservatives.
I want to remember George W. Bush as the President who gave us Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. His commitment to supply-side tax cuts represent the real domestic legacy of the Bush Administration even if Steve Forbes deserves a little credit. I also want to remember the President’s commitment to freedom — for all people.
But Heroic Conservatism? Anyone who had the joy of experiencing the Reagan years won’t be attracted to Gerson’s political philosophy even with its roots in holy thought. As President Reagan explained over lunch in New York that day, Republican administrations need people who understand government is not the solution. Government is the problem.