The Future of the GOP

What Michael Gerson’s Heroic Conservatism gets wrong.

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. He is eloquent on both counts; on neither is he entirely persuasive. His defense of the Bush presidency would be more compelling, one suspects, were there no living, breathing administration to defend. As it stands, Gerson has the air of a horse trader talking as fast as possible in the hopes the audience won’t notice that the animal he’s selling has already expired.

Certainly, liberals aren’t likely to listen. The wounds of the last six years are still too raw, and the portrait Gerson paints is too much at odds with the consensus view of Bush as a right-wing radical. Years from now, historians will note that Bush, like Nixon before him, left a liberal as well as a conservative legacy—new entitlements in health care, a wider federal role in education, expansive humanitarian efforts in Africa and elsewhere, and the rhetoric of foreign-policy idealism if not necessarily the reality. But for now, Bush’s mix of incompetence and illiberalism is front and center, and it’s hard to imagine Heroic Conservatism—in which Dick Cheney makes only cameo appearances; the Swift Boat vets get a bland, noncommittal paragraph; and the index includes no entry for “Abu Ghraib”—persuading anyone to Gerson’s left to reconsider this administration’s merits.

Nor is Gerson likely to find a ready audience among conservatives. His year as a Post columnist has earned him few friends to his right, given the regularity with which he has piously scolded his fellow Republicans for being too partisan, too tightfisted, and too bigoted. (In a characteristic column, he defended Bush’s proposed immigration reform by accusing its foes of betraying Jesus Christ himself: “The Christian faith teaches that our common humanity is more important than our nationality. That all of us, ultimately, are strangers in this world and brothers to the bone; and all in need of amnesty.”) The publication of Heroic Conservatism was met by a predictable burst of criticism from conservative pundits, in which National Review’s Mark Krikorian summed up the general anti-Gerson consensus by demanding: “Why is this man called a conservative?”

It’s a fair question. As the world understood the term conservative in, say, 1965, Gerson isn’t one. Like many Americans who’ve crowded into the GOP over the last four decades—blue-collar Catholics and Jewish neoconservatives as well as evangelicals—the militantly libertarian spirit of the midcentury Right is largely foreign to him. But on the road from Goldwater to Reagan, and thence to George W. Bush, the conservative movement transformed itself from a narrow claque into a broad church, embracing anyone and everyone who called themselves an enemy of liberalism, whether they were New York intellectuals or Orange County housewives. This “here comes everybody” quality has been the American Right’s great strength over the past three decades, and a Republican Party that aspires to govern America can ill afford to read the Gersons of the world—social conservatives with moderate-to-liberal sympathies on economics—out of its coalition.

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—save perhaps for Mike Huckabee—are 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.

If Gerson’s diagnosis is largely correct, however, his proposed remedy—the “heroic conservatism” of the title—seems more likely to kill the patient than to save it. Standing amid the rubble of an administration that promised (often in his own flowery prose) far more than it delivered, Gerson summons the GOP to a still-more-ambitious set of foreign and domestic crusades. For a “heroic conservative,” transforming the Middle East is only the beginning: In place of the cramped anti-government vision of a Dick Armey or a Phil Gramm, a Gersonized GOP would set the federal government to work lifting up all the wretched of the earth, whether they’re death-penalty defendants and teenage runaways at home or Darfuri refugees and Chinese dissidents abroad.

It’s a stirring vision in its way, but there’s little that’s conservative about it. What Gerson proposes is an imitation of Great Society liberalism, in which noble, high-minded elites like himself use the levers of government on behalf of “the poor, the addicted, and children at risk.” He employs the phrase limited government here and there, but never suggests any concrete limits on what government should do. Whether he’s writing about poverty or foreign policy, immigration, or health care, his prescription for the right is all heroism and no conservatism; indeed, save for its pro-life sympathies, his vision seems indistinguishable from the liberalism of an LBJ—or a Jimmy Carter.

In a telling passage, Gerson boasts that in the 2000 race the Bush campaign “talked more consistently and passionately about poverty and hopelessness” than Al Gore, while Gore focused “almost exclusively on ‘working families’ and the middle class.” He takes it as a given that making this rhetorical shift permanent would be a good thing for the GOP. But both politically and philosophically it represents a betrayal of conservatism’s proper role in a welfare-state society. From the 1970s onward, the Republican Party built its majority by running against a politics that seemed to privilege the interests of the poor over those of working- and middle-class taxpayers. This is not a legacy that should be lightly abandoned, not least because America already has a party that envisions the federal bureaucracy as alternatively compassionate and heroic. In the long run, you can’t out-liberal liberalism; the Democratic Party will always offer voters the higher bid.

To last, and matter, conservatism needs an agenda that partakes less of Gerson’s evangelical moralism and more of the realism that defined the original neoconservatives. It needs a foreign policy whose idealism is leavened with a greater sense of limits than this administration has displayed; and a domestic policy that seeks to draw contrasts with liberalism, not to imitate it, by emphasizing responsibility rather than charity and respect rather than compassion. Above all, it needs to think as much about meeting the concerns of working- and middle-class Americans, the constituents that first Nixon and then Reagan won for the GOP, as it does about the dissidents and addicts that a “heroic conservatism” would set out to save.

Michael Gerson is right that a return to the conservatism of the late 1990s, with its reflexive anti-government spirit and its parochial streak, means a return to the political wilderness. But just because the Republican Party can’t go back doesn’t mean it has to keep going down the path that he and George W. Bush carved out for it.