I'm not sure what puts me more at odds with the
overwhelming force of bipartisan opinion: the fact that I thought Lions for Lambs
had a number of redeeming qualities, or the fact that I tend to enjoy Michael
Gerson's Washington Post columns. (For the record, I also usually like
air travel and nil-nil draws in soccer.) In the interest of not subjecting
Plank readers to my attempts at film criticism, I'll take up Gerson's cause and
let someone else defend Robert Redford (if anyone will).
What has surprised me about the conservative reaction to
Gerson's book Heroic Conservatism is its unanimity. Even Ross Douthat,
who I'd assumed would be broadly sympathetic, wrote a (mostly) critical review for Slate.
One thing Douthat says is both unfair and indicative of an unfortunate tendency in the
genre of conservative Gerson-bashing:
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."
The problem is that this, like most other conservative
responses to Gerson, is a qualitative assessment of his philosophy, when what's
needed is some quantitative sense. Debates about the role of government are
fruitless without numbers: what percentage of GDP should we spend on poverty
alleviation? What should the foreign aid budget be? To label Gerson a
big-government liberal just because he says nice things about government
doesn't help very much.
To be fair, Gerson contributes to this problem--his book
says very little about what specific policies he favors to try to achieve the
goals he lays out. But all indications are that his actual agenda is hardly
revolutionary. He likes
S-CHIP, but not, in his words, "government-run universal health care";
he wants more racial reconciliation, but eschews grand '70s-era social
engineering schemes like forced busing. He has no apparent interest in
Nixon-era wage and price controls. His favorite programs are ones like Bush's 2003
AIDS initiative--whose price tag of $3 billion a year isn't exactly busting the
budget. (He did support one truly massive endeavor--the Iraq
war--but now he's ambivalent about it, and in any case conservatives seem
willing to forgive him for that one.)
Gerson doesn't want a massive new federal effort to combat
social injustice; he wants a modest effort, but one imbued with an awesome new sense
of moral purpose. It's Tommy Thompson's ideology wrapped in RFK's rhetoric. One
can question whether this is really a unique political philosophy meriting a
big book deal, but Great Society liberalism it ain't. To me--and I mean this in
a good way--it seems more or less like run-of-the-mill centrism; he probably
could have just joined the Republican Main Street Partnership or the DLC and
been done with it, though that wouldn't have earned him very much money.
In retrospect, Gerson probably should have defined
explicitly the limits on government that he accepts implicitly, from a policy
standpoint. Nevertheless, I would have thought there would be plenty of room
within conservatism for someone with a center-right agenda but no taste for Norquistean language. Does this really merit ostracism from a political movement
that loves to boast about its healthy internal disagreements?