Desperately searching for an establishment Republican who can block Donald Trump, many observers are ignoring the strong and politically astute performance of Rand Paul in Wednesday night's Republican debate. A classic example this morning is Michael Gerson, the big-government Republican who has written for George W. Bush and the Washington Post and is the most anti-libertarian pundit this side of Salon. Recognizing the need for the Republican party to reach new audiences, especially "with minorities, with women, with younger voters, with working-class voters in key states," Gerson writes:
The relatively rare moments of economic analysis and political outreach in the second Republican debate — Chris Christie talking about income stagnation, or Marco Rubio lamenting the “millions of people in this country living paycheck to paycheck,” or Ben Carson admitting the minimum wage might require increasing and fixing, or Jeb Bush setting out the necessary goal of accelerated economic growth, or John Kasich calling for a “sense of hope, sense of purpose, a sense of unity” — served only to highlight the opportunity cost of the Trump summer.
What's missing? Well, Rand Paul talked about marijuana reform, an issue that is far more popular than the Republican Party, especially among younger voters. And criminal justice and incarceration, an issue of special concern to minorities. And especially about our endless wars in the Middle East, at a time when 63 percent of Republicans and 79 percent of independents say that the Iraq war was not worth the costs, and when 52 percent of Americans say the United States “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” (Not the best formulation, as noninterventionists are not opposed to international activity, just to imprudent military action. But you go to print with the polls you have, not the polls you wish you had.) Those are attempts to reach new audiences that a fair-minded debate watcher would have noticed.
Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to Bush the Younger and perennial libertarian antagonist, has denounced Rand Paul’s foreign policy views. That should surprise no one, but the manner in which he did so bears discussing.
Gerson’s bill of particulars is as follows:
The younger Paul has proposed defense cuts, criticized foreign aid, led opposition to U.S. involvement in Syria, raised the possibility of accepting and containing a nuclear Iran and railed against “possible targeted drone strikes against Americans on American soil.”
Each of these is its own argument, but what’s more interesting is how Gerson broadens the discussion in an attempt to paint the younger Paul in a conspiratorial light:
His libertarian foreign policy holds that America is less secure because it has been “too belligerent” and that decades of international engagement have both corrupted our constitutional order and corrupted other nations with our largess or militarism.
Reasonable people can disagree about the extent to which U.S. foreign policy has gone off the deep end in recent decades. Also, with due acknowledgment of the victims of U.S. “engagement” in places from Laos to Iraq, people could also disagree about the extent to which our militarism has “corrupted other nations.” But nobody with a lofty perch like Gerson’s should dispute the idea that international engagement has corrupted our constitutional order.
You could fill a library with the volumes that demonstrate how war and preparation for war—which is what Gerson means by “engagement”—have contributed to the growth of the state and the evolution of American political, economic and legal institutions. As that last link shows, influential American legal scholars are hailing Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt as “our hero” in providing the legal case for an unchecked presidency, with James Madison playing the republican bad guy.
And it is the height of irony that Gerson holds up for ridicule the idea that our foreign policy has corrupted our constitutional order the very same week that a U.S. Senator—who is a strong partisan of the CIA—gave a 40 minute speech lambasting the Agency for spying on the legislature in the context of the latter’s investigation of the CIA’s use of torture, or if you prefer, “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
Warrantless NSA spying on Americans, senior Executive Branch officials baldly lying to Congress about it with no consequences, the tortured legal reasoning that led to Guantanamo Bay, the American president claiming the power to assassinate a US citizen with no meaningful legal or legislative oversight on the grounds that he’s talked it over with his legal team, the internment of more than a hundred thousand American citizens for the crime of having had the wrong ancestors… One could go on.
The people who framed our constitution were the sort of people who opposed forming a standing army at a time when European empires were mucking around in the Western hemisphere. So whatever his disagreements with Rand Paul on foreign policy, Gerson could stand to consider—or better yet, do some reading—about how war and militarization have “corrupted our constitutional order.” It’s a bit of an open‐and‐shut case.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the sweeping health‐care law that Obama signed in 2010, asks state governments to set up health exchanges, and authorizes the federal government to provide tax credits to people who use those exchanges to get insurance. But most states have refused to establish the online marketplaces, and both the tax credits and many of the law’s penalties can’t go into effect until the states act.
Obama’s IRS has decided it’s going to apply the tax credits and penalties in states that refuse, even without statutory authorization. During the recent scandal over the IRS’s harassment of conservative groups, many Republicans have warned that the IRS can’t be trusted with the new powers that the health law will give the agency. They are wrong about the verb tense: It has already abused those powers.
For more, read my article (with Jonathan Adler), “Taxation Without Representation: The Illegal IRS Rule to Expand Tax Credits Under the PPACA.”
The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson writes that the IRS’s suppression of tea‐party groups and the subsequent cover‐up are the second‐largest scandal haunting the agency.
Drawing from my article (with Jonathan Adler) on the illegal IRS rule meant to save Obamacare, Gerson concludes:
The IRS seized the authority to spend about $800 billion over 10 years on benefits that were not authorized by Congress. And the current IRS scandal puts this decision in a new light…
The whole enterprise [of Obamacare] is precariously perched atop a flimsy bureaucratic excuse. And the agency providing that excuse is a discredited mess.
When the IRS suppresses speech by the president’s political opponents, that’s nothing to sneeze at. Neither is it anything to sneeze at when the IRS tries to spend almost a trillion dollars against the express wishes of Congress.
In 2008 Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch hailed a “libertarian moment,” encompassing everything from the Internet to the collapse of “legacy” industries and legacy entitlement programs. I’ve used the same term here, when NPR talked about Ron Paul and when polls showed rising support for smaller government, gay marriage, and drug legalization.
But suddenly, today, everyone seems to see a libertarian moment. Driving in to work, I got so tired of the smug self‐satisfaction on public radio’s pledge drive, I switched to the vigorously right‐wing Chris Plante Show just in time to hear Plante say, “This is a great day for libertarianism” in regard to the abuse‐of‐power stories dominating the mainstream media.
And then, mirabile dictu, I got to the office, opened the Washington Post, and found today’s column by Michael Gerson. Now, as he says in today’s column, Gerson is “conspicuously not a libertarian.” Indeed, he is the most vociferously anti‐libertarian columnist in contemporary punditry. And yet his column today is titled (in the print paper):
Making libertarians of us all
Man, you’ve got to abuse power something awful to make Michael Gerson start thinking libertarian. So thanks, IRS and Justice Department!
And now that the Obama administration’s abuse of power has got our attention, can we broaden our focus to take in health care mandates, recess appointments, campus speech regulations, the anti‐constitutional Independent Payment Advisory Board, similar extra‐legislative bodies in Dodd‐Frank, the expropriation of Chrysler creditors, and illegal wars?
Poor Michael Gerson. The former speechwriter for George W. Bush writes about libertarianism more than any other major columnist. And yet, after at least six years of attacks, he still can't grasp the concept. Take today's column defending Rick Santorum against "anti-government activists." I pointed out his error in calling libertarians "anti-government" in 2010:
Libertarians are not against all government. We are precisely “advocates of limited government.” Perhaps to the man who wrote the speeches in which a Republican president advocated a trillion dollars of new spending, the largest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, federal takeovers of education and marriage, presidential power to arrest and incarcerate American citizens without access to a lawyer or a judge, and two endless “nation-building” enterprises, the distinction between “limited government” and “anti-government” is hard to see. But it is real and important.
This time he includes me as his example of an "anti-government activist" and purports to quote my objection to Santorum:
David Boaz of the Cato Institute cites evidence implicating him in shocking ideological crimes, such as “promotion of prison ministries” and wanting to “expand colon cancer screenings for Medicare beneficiaries.”
The first quotation there is from Jonathan Rauch's review of Santorum's book, It Takes a Family, and the second is from a New York Times article on Santorum's campaign brochure listing all the pork he'd brought home to Pennsylvanians. As for Rauch's list of Santorum's ideas for an activist federal government, here's what I quoted:
In his book he comments, seemingly with a shrug, “Some will reject what I have to say as a kind of ‘Big Government’ conservatism.”
They sure will. A list of the government interventions that Santorum endorses includes national service, promotion of prison ministries, “individual development accounts,” publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, strengthened obscenity enforcement, covenant marriage, assorted tax breaks, economic literacy programs in “every school in America” (his italics), and more. Lots more.
Out of that list Gerson picks "promotion of prison ministries" as a dismissal of my concerns. Some readers might well think that government sponsorship of Christianity in prisons is problematic enough. But others might think that you don't have to be "anti-government" to oppose the three new government transfer programs that immediately follow the reference to prison ministries.
Michael Gerson’s predictable, reflexive attack on Rep. Ron Paul in his May 10 op‐ed in the WaPo for Paul’s sensible stand in favor of ending the futile crusade called the War on Drugs, makes a curious argument. He asserts that there is a “de facto decriminalization of drugs” in Washington, D.C. Curious, because there are few places in the nation where the drug war is waged more vigorously. Doesn’t seem to be working, does it?
Yet Gerson would expand the effort. Never mind that the social pathologies in the District for which Gerson’s compassionate conservative heart bleeds are mainly a result of making drugs illegal: Turf wars with innocents caught in the crossfire; children quitting school to sell drugs because of the artificially high prices prohibition creates; disrespect for the law due to a massive criminal subculture.
Gerson, one of the chief architects of the disastrous Bush II administration, should step away from his obsessive disdain for libertarianism and consider the nationwide decriminalization of drugs undertaken in Portugal in 2001. Drugs use is down, particularly among young people, and drug‐related crimes have dropped precipitously. There is a reason hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have taken to the streets to call for the end to the war on drugs there that is tearing apart the fabric of Mexican society. On top of the social aspects of the drug war dystopia, Cato senior fellow and Harvard economist Jeffery Miron estimates that ending the drug war in the U.S. would save $41.3 billion annually. As usual, Ron Paul has it right.