Gerson’s “Vision Thing”

How can the G.O.P. get its groove back?  Michael Gerson, former speechwriter and top policy advisor to President Bush, has an idea: purge the small-government conservatives.  As he puts it in the current issue of Newsweek, “any political movement that elevates abstract antigovernment ideology above human needs is hardly conservative, and unlikely to win.” 

As Justin Logan has pointed out in this space before, Gerson finds the “small government” aspect of conservatism “morally empty.”  Gerson expands on that theme here:

As antigovernment conservatives seek to purify the Republican Party, it is reasonable to ask if the purest among them are conservatives at all. The combination of disdain for government, a reflexive preference for markets and an unbalanced emphasis on individual choice is usually called libertarianism. The old conservatives had some concerns about that creed, which Russell Kirk called “an ideology of universal selfishness.” Conservatives have generally taught that the health of society is determined by the health of institutions: families, neighborhoods, schools, congregations. Unfettered individualism can loosen those bonds, while government can act to strengthen them. By this standard, good public policies—from incentives to charitable giving, to imposing minimal standards on inner-city schools—are not apostasy; they are a thoroughly orthodox, conservative commitment to the common good.

Campaigning on the size of government in 2008, while opponents talk about health care, education and poverty, will seem, and be, procedural, small-minded, cold and uninspired. The moral stakes are even higher. What does antigovernment conservatism offer to inner-city neighborhoods where violence is common and families are rare? Nothing. What achievement would it contribute to racial healing and the unity of our country? No achievement at all. Anti-government conservatism turns out to be a strange kind of idealism—an idealism that strangles mercy.

A speechwriter’s job is to make the president talk pretty; it’s generally a bad idea to give him a policymaking role.  Yet Gerson had one in the Bush White House.  “He might have had more influence than any White House staffer who wasn’t chief of staff or national security adviser,” according to Bill Kristol.  As the Washington Post reported upon Gerson’s departure last summer: 

He was a formulator of the Bush doctrine making the spread of democracy the fundamental goal of U.S. foreign policy, a policy hailed as revolutionary by some and criticized as unrealistic by others. He led a personal crusade to make unprecedented multibillion-dollar investments in fighting AIDS, malaria and poverty around the globe. He became one of the few voices pressing for a more aggressive policy to stop genocide in Darfur, even as critics complained of U.S. inaction.

This is the Gerson vision: armed uplift abroad, compassionate statism at home, and boundless generosity with other people’s blood and treasure.  If you think the problem with American foreign policy is that it hasn’t been ambitious enough in the last five years, if you think the problem with the Great Society was that there wasn’t enough hymn-singing, then it may be for you.  But for those of us who favor limited, constitutional government, Gerson’s views are instructive.  That a man with such contempt for small-government conservatives had the ear of the president explains a lot about the wreckage that surrounds us.