Someone had mentioned the following in a recent conversation, so I tracked down a source for it:
Huckabee is described by one national conservative leader as a member of the “Christian left.”
This reminded me that the very next day after Novak related this piece of information, Gerson wrote his column praising Huckabee. The description of Huckabee as a member of the Christian left and the critique of Gerson as essentially being a left-evangelical who happens to be Republican fit together very well. The connection between Gerson’s center-left, weepy “heroic conservatism” and Huckabee’s saccharine, “kill them but cry about it” (to use Michael’s celebrated phrase) mentality was clear even before Gerson’s column, and it probably became even more clear in recent weeks and especially after this week’s debate. The description of Huckabee as being on the Christian left also reminded me of two good reviews of Gerson’s Heroic Conservatism. Now I haven’t read the book, but I have read and heard enough of Gerson’s work (as well as interviews he has given) to get a sense of what he thinks this “heroic conservatism” (which James has brilliantly renamed helpy heroism) is supposed to mean.
First, let’s go back and see what TAC’s Kara Hopkins had to say about Gerson and the book in the latest issue:
He’s also an unlikely conservative: his earliest political experience was representing Jimmy Carter in a high school debate, and, when asked by the New Yorker to name his favorite president, he praised FDR, Truman, Kennedy, and Wilson before mentioning Reagan—“to some extent.”
This fits with the picture of Gerson Matthew Scully gave in his takedown article for The Atlantic, in which Scully described how Gerson routinely looked to old FDR and Kennedy speeches for inspiration in writing war and foreign policy speeches for Bush:
Some moments seem ludicrous only in retrospect, as when we wrote the speech that Bush would give on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, on May 1, 2003—remembered now for the “Mission Accomplished” banner. As usual, Mike had come in with a grand, historic vision for the effort—along with a literary antecedent to imitate. This was another habit of his, and with each speech you could always predict which models he would turn to. When it was a speech on race, in would come Mike with a sheaf of heavily underlined Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. For speeches on poverty, it was time for more compassionate-conservative fervor, drawn secondhand from the addresses of Robert F. Kennedy. For updates on the war against terrorism, we could expect to see Mike’s well-worn copies of JFK and FDR speeches plopped on the table for instruction, and for imitation that when unchecked (as in the second inaugural) could slip perilously close to copying.
But that is what heroic conservatism is about: moral fervor meets global ambition. Perhaps the former senses its prickliness—its tendency to joyless parochialism—and longs to widen its confines. The latter may perceive instability in its enthusiasm and want a tether. Together they make a potent pair—and a dangerous one.
It certainly is dangerous, and perhaps nowhere more so than in its capacity to dress up injustice as the height of morality. One reason for this moral confusion is that Gerson has adopted utopian ideals, which invariably excuse and accept excesses in the name of greater goods:
But then he takes a decidedly radical turn, for the “moral ideals” Gerson has in mind—“liberty, tolerance, and equality”—echo the Jacobins’ own, and our pact appears to be with every inhabitant of the planet. “Our nation cherishes freedom, but we do not own it,” he wrote in a text Bush delivered from the deck of the USS Ronald Reagan. “While it is the birthright of every American, it is also the equal promise of the religious believer in Southern Sudan, or an Iraqi farmer in the Tigris Valley, or of a child born in China today.”
Thus the villains in Gerson’s morality play aren’t liberals, for whom government programs are only improved by global scope, but realists. He condemns them for “offer[ing] no millennial goal to pursue in foreign policy—neither international order, nor democratic peace.” But he sees their stock falling. With the zeal of a man who has found his moment, he exults, “After the shock of 9/11, the Republican Party—the party of realism and caution—had become the party of idealism, action, and risk.”
Those wild tendencies allowed the war on terror its global reach, but it was Gerson’s brush that simultaneously made it a study in black and white. The worst of worlds combined. Where the exercise of force should have been constrained, we got a crusade, unchecked by just-war dictates or historical implausibility. And where the shadowland of conflicting interests and ancient grievance should have been afforded wide estate, we drew rigid dichotomy instead.
Obviously, it is a very odd sort of conservative who seeks any millennial goals whatever, whether in foreign policy or elsewhere, and in fact this is proof of a lack of conservatism. It is typical of Gerson’s worldview that his criticisms of others are actually the highest compliments they could receive: realists can take some consolation that they disappoint the fantastical ambition of Michael Gerson, since no one should want to satisfy him. God shall usher in the millennium at a time when He wills. It is our task to preserve what has been entrusted to us until the Kingdom comes, and efforts to hasten its coming or establish it here below are as impious as they are bound to fail.
Ross is more sympathetic to some of what Gerson proposes (and is therefore that much more devastating in rejecting Gerson’s prescriptions):
Particularly since Gerson’s central argument is basically correct: American conservatism needs to stand for something besides government-cutting if it hopes to regain the majority that George W. Bush won (and quickly lost).
Perhaps that is right. As a matter of electoral politics, it is hard to disagree with this, though I wonder whether American conservatism should trouble itself quite so much with winning Republican majorities. It seems to me that part of the woes of the current conservative movement stem from spending rather too much time worrying about that majority and not enough considering the most wise and prudent courses of action to pursue. That’s a debate for another day. Nonetheless, it seems clear that regaining the Republican majority will not come about by embracing the ideas that helped to lose it.
If Gerson’s diagnosis is largely correct, however, his proposed remedy—the “heroic conservatism” of the title—seems more likely to kill the patient than to save it. Standing amid the rubble of an administration that promised (often in his own flowery prose) far more than it delivered, Gerson summons the GOP to a still-more-ambitious set of foreign and domestic crusades. For a “heroic conservative,” transforming the Middle East is only the beginning: In place of the cramped anti-government vision of a Dick Armey or a Phil Gramm, a Gersonized GOP would set the federal government to work lifting up all the wretched of the earth, whether they’re death-penalty defendants and teenage runaways at home or Darfuri refugees and Chinese dissidents abroad.
I would part with Ross, not surprisingly, in the description of the anti-government, or more accurately smaller government, vision as “cramped,” since there is nothing more narrow, dogmatic and limited than the fanatical idea that the problems of the entire world are ours to solve through the efforts of the U.S. government. The goals of small government conservatives are necessarily limited, as they believe government must be, but their vision is, in fact, an expansive and broad one that seeks to allow the widest latitudes of a free society. It is the Gersons and Huckabees who are constantly hectoring us to save the world and lose weight at the same time, all the while either pouting (Gerson) or smiling in blatant attempts to manipulate us emotionally into accepting their misguided policy proposals. Gerson appropriates the word heroic for his program, but ignores that heroism is the province of individual heroes, rather than the result of collective efforts or the product of state programs.
Huckabee is the closest thing to Gerson’s ideal candidate in this race, which we really have to hope means that Huckabee is doomed to fail. He is someone who provides the “bleeding-heart conservative” alternative combined with an openness to the expansion of government (rhetoric about the Fair Tax notwithstanding), a steady dose of moralising in support of questionable policies on immigration and no particularly strong opposition to intervention overseas. He lacks Brownback’s record of “compassionate conservatism” abroad, but he gives every indication that he would be more than glad to pursue a Brownbackian agenda in foreign policy. Should he prevail, and should Gersonism receive a new lease on life in the GOP, we should understand at that point that, in some real sense, the GOP will have been taken over by the Christian Left.