Michael Gerson invites attacks from the left and the right by sticking up for the legacies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. I think he’s right about Clinton, but needlessly provocative in his defense of Bush. These lines, for example, can’t be calculated to do anything other than annoy (immensely) his conservative readers:
Talk-radio conservatism assaults the most obviously Catholic elements of Bushism -- a role for government in compassion and a welcoming attitude toward immigrants. "Purity" is defined as the empathy of Tom DeLay and the racial sensitivity of Tom Tancredo.
The alternatives to "Bushism" are, he says, libertarianism and nativism.
This sort of provocative name-calling won’t persuade conservatives to consider whether there’s anything worth preserving in the rationale Gerson helped the President construct for his domestic policy. Indeed, Gerson would do well to get past his epithets on immigration (a reflex that cheapens him, by the way) and examine why so many well-meaning (former?) Bush supporters are opposed to comprehensive immigration reform. He’s smart enough to know that most of them don’t simply hate furriners; rather, they don’t trust a government that has given no indication of a willingness actually to gain control of our borders. And yes, they naturally care about national identity, but not in a racist or nativist way. They’re perfectly willing to welcome immigrants who are perfectly willing to learn English, obey our laws, work hard, and love our country. They recognize that cultivating citizenship takes time and effort, and that it can be done more easily with a manageable flow of legal immigrants. And that manageable flow begins with a border that isn’t unconscionably porous.
If Gerson took his conservative opponents seriously, and actually engaged with them, he might--as the keeper of the compassionate conservatism flame--contribute constructively to a conversation about the future of conservatism, persuading his interlocutors that points like this are worth taking seriously on theoretical, as well as practical political grounds:
The abandonment of Bushism and Clintonism is also leaving many Americans ideologically homeless: Catholics who regard themselves as pro-life, pro-immigrant and pro-poor; young evangelicals more exercised by millions dying of AIDS in Africa than by the continued existence of the Education Department; liberals who do not find their liberalism inconsistent with national strength or opposition to Islamic radicalism, the most illiberal force on Earth. All this alienation may, in a saner time, be the basis of a movement that mitigates polarization instead of glorying in it.
As it is, he’s rapidly writing himself into irrelevance.
Update: Ross Douthat kinda sorta agrees with me, and makes a good point about how GWB/MG could have accommodated the base along the way. Jonah G. is grateful that MG has finally confessed that Bushism/Gersonism is just Republican Clintonism. He adds:
The Gerson column I would love to read is how he reconciles Bushism to Rovism. Rove — for good reasons and bad — based Bush’s electoral strategy, particularly his 2004 reelection strategy, on churning up the base. It seems to me that there is a profound tension between holding a "philosophy" of triangulation or the post-partisan "common good" while practicing a politics based upon pleasing only one side of the national divide. I would assume that Gerson recognized this and it caused him no small amount of frustration. But, that is merely my assumption. I’d love to hear his views on the subject.
I don’t know what Gerson would say, and don’t have time for a long answer myself, but would like to make two points. First, for a number of reasons (to name two: Florida and Iraq), any effort to make political hay of compassionate conservatism in 2004 was impossible; the Bush campaign had to respond to a polarized politics, and did so quite successfully. Indeed, even if it remains viable, compassionate conservatism can’t surface again until Iraq isn’t the overarching issue. Fortunately for the two or three remaining admitted compassionate conservatives, we the people have a short memory. Just wait ’til 2012!
Second, some argue that, whatever was (and is?) the case with Bush (and Gerson), for the most part compassionate conservatism was regarded as simply an election ploy (and hence dispensable). I think that’s right for all too many Republicans, especially the Congressional party, who took it as a license for their pork-laden version of big-government conservatism. Bush could have confronted the Congressional porkmeisters, but in the face of the hyperpartisan Democratic bitterness that followed the 2000 election, he was probably too taken with the eleventh commandment. (He and Gerson have abandoned it now, for altogether the wrong reasons, and in the wrong cause.)