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In Defense Of Gerson

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?

--Josh Patashnik