November 26, 2007


The Future of the GOP (Ross Douthat, Nov. 26, 2007, Slate)

The alliance between evangelical Christians and the Republican Party has been one of the most fruitful political partnerships in recent American history. It has also been one of the more unusual. From 19th-century abolitionists through William Jennings Bryan's Social Gospel to the civil rights movement, evangelicals have tended to associate themselves with idealistic crusades and messianic ambitions—and thus, as often as not, with the aspirations of the political left. "As a faith that revolves around the experience of individual transformation," conservative scholar Wilfred McClay remarked early in 2005—at the height of liberal panic over the influence of religious "values voters"—evangelical Christianity "inevitably exists in tension" with the established order. To call someone "both an evangelical and a conservative, then," McClay concluded, "is to call him something slightly more problematic than one may think."

This tension has been in evidence throughout the presidency of George W. Bush, and it's nowhere more apparent than in the divided soul of his former chief speechwriter and policy adviser Michael Gerson, now a columnist for the Washington Post and the author of Heroic Conservatism: Why Conservatives Should Embrace America's Ideals—and Why They Deserve To Fail If They Don't. A graduate of Wheaton College, the flagship school of American evangelicalism, Gerson began his political life as a passionate Jimmy Carter supporter, only to drift rightward as a pro-choice orthodoxy took hold in the Democratic Party. Like many of his co-believers, he found the GOP an imperfect home and gravitated toward Republicans who deviated from the party's small-government line, among them Charles Colson, who exchanged his role as Nixon's hatchet man for a life in prison ministry; Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, who spent the 1990s pushing proposals for federal grants to faith-based charities on a skeptical GOP leadership; Jack Kemp, the self-described "bleeding-heart conservative"; and finally George W. Bush himself, whose 2000 presidential campaign was organized in conscious opposition to the strident anti-government ethos of the Gingrich-era party.

The Bush-Gerson partnership was a match made, dare one say, in heaven: a religious speechwriter who wanted to graft "a message of social justice" onto the rugged individualism of Goldwater-Reagan conservatism, and a governor who, in Gerson's words, "not only wanted to run the Republican Party, but to remake it." For every left-winger who dismissed Bush's talk of "compassionate conservatism" as a cynical attempt to retitle the same old right-wing song without changing any of the notes—and for every conservative who hoped it didn't go any further than that—Gerson's book, part memoir and part polemic, offers passionate testimony to the contrary. In the pages of Heroic Conservatism (because merely compassionate conservatism doesn't go quite far enough), liberals will find a Bush administration dedicated to providing health care to seniors, improving failing schools, boosting foreign aid, and championing human rights abroad. Small-government conservatives, meanwhile, will find many of their darkest fears about the Bush administration's crypto-liberalism confirmed.

Gerson's intention is to justify the ways of Bush to both sides—to persuade liberals that the current president's faith-infused idealism fits squarely in a political tradition that runs back to Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and JFK, and to convince conservatives that their only hope for political relevance is to associate themselves with a distinctly un-Norquistian view of government's capacity to make the world a better place.

...but the GOP displayed it in 2000 when it chose George W. Bush's revolutionary, but politically risky, vision over the conservative orthodoxy and certain electability of John McCain. It's not often a party is willing to risk an election for the good of the country.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 26, 2007 2:18 PM

Seems every generation since @1900 we go thru the same "more governmnt is the answer to all our problems" cycle.

Posted by: Brian at November 26, 2007 3:41 PM

Reagan never really was a "rugged individualist" or a libertarian. He was more left than W by a fair ways.

Posted by: Benny at November 26, 2007 4:23 PM

Once again, we are not going to save the babies. keep our guns, and live up to the leadership of the West against the threat of the spiritual jailhouse with a picture of our hands tearing up a Social Security card.

Who does not get it? It absolutely does not matter that Social Security ought to be reformed. It is the image, even if the image is false, that we will have people selling apples on streetcorners and living in cardboard shanties that would turn the country over to the witches and queers for a generation.

What then is the conservative thing to do? For one thing, politics is not an academic exercise. It is objectively correct that the small-government approach is the more conducive to material progress, provided that we are prepared to endorse the extinction of the less fit, as well as the poverty of the less motivated. Try marketing (the word was chosen for a reason) that approach to a customer base which includes, not only the less fit and the less motivated, but those whose value systems reject the extirmination and the poverty.

Think now: how is it that Marxism failed before it was ever tried? Focus! The "law" of increasing misery that the neurotic, atheist founders of Marxism said doomed capitalism was no law at all. We overcame the theortical shortcomings of capitalism because we recognized that, in the real world, the theories produced unacceptable results. Winning is about winning, not about ideology.

Furthermore, the values we conserve are not theoretical capitalism. Capitalism is a means, not an end.

When technology makes the all-too-many economically obsolete, an evil described by C.S. Lewis in That Hideous Strength, the state may arrange things to generate demand for their labor. Yes, there are great pitfalls here, not the least of which is that the clents of the system will do their best to finagle rewards out of proportoion to their efforts.

It has all been spelled out. Is this version conservative enough?

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 26, 2007 5:21 PM

There's never been a less government is better cycle. The argument is only over what sort of government.

Reagan was a child of the Depression, so he saved the New Deal. W is a Texan, so he believes in a personalized safety net, though still a government one.

Posted by: oj at November 26, 2007 6:02 PM

That's a circle you can't square, Lou. It is the objective truth that our unprecedented affluence has come during the era of "big government", Social Security, etc.

The small government approach doesn't work.

Posted by: oj at November 26, 2007 6:05 PM

So we should euro-thanize ourselves? No thanks.

Posted by: Gideon at November 26, 2007 6:28 PM

No, Europe is dying because it's secular, like the libertarian/neocon/etc. wing of the GOP.

Posted by: oj at November 26, 2007 8:31 PM

David Frum wrote this week that Bush's deeds (2nd term) have 'promiscuously' failed to match the words of his speeches (one could say "heroic" words, as Gerson's title states). That disconnect has hurt the President with his supporters, and given openings to his opponents.

Part of this disconnect is obviously the disdain and bias of the media (for anything George Bush says), but that is not the whole story.

Posted by: ratbert at November 27, 2007 12:50 AM

Frum is one of the Zeus worshippers. He doesn't understand the President's speeches. Recall that he thinks 9-11 was a good thing for the Administration.

Posted by: oj at November 27, 2007 7:43 AM

So, OJ, how do you get a GW Bush to explain how MSAs benefit America and Americans? Or, for that matter, Rush Limbaugh, FOX News, and National Review? Two of the previous three are mad at the prescription drug deal that precipitated MSAs, and the other always has "sensational" news to fall back on when MSAs are too boring to explain.

I don't doubt that both the MSAs and the prescription drug deal will save Americans more money than is currently believed, but we commoners sure would like to hear it from GWBs mouth before he leaves office.

Posted by: Brad S at November 27, 2007 8:26 AM

Speaking of certain government actions encouraging "bad behavior" by the commoner, I wonder how the folks yelling about "subprime loans" would respond to folks during the Homestead Act days leaving the 160 acres in the Dakotas and Nebraska after the first bad winter. (that winter of 1880-81 was an especially nasty one in what is now South Dakota) And that was despite the fact that the land would have been free if they stayed on it and improved it for 5 years.

We've had "big government" attempting to improve people's lives for quite a while now.

Posted by: Brad S at November 27, 2007 8:34 AM

And all we have to show for it is 300 million plus people with a household networth of $55 trillion.

Posted by: oj at November 27, 2007 11:33 AM

They never understood IRA's/401k's either but they've got $6 trillion saved in them.

Posted by: oj at November 27, 2007 11:35 AM
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