Commentary Magazine


Heroic Conservatism
by Michael J. Gerson

Whatever the final verdict on George W. Bush’s presidency may prove to be—and this has been a presidency at once so consequential and so controversial that any verdict is certain to be the subject of constant revision—it is questionable how much notice, if any, will be taken by future historians of the signature phrase of Bush’s first election campaign in 2000. That phrase was “compassionate conservatism.”

The centrality of the phrase, and the concept behind it, had its basis in a canny political calculation. As a candidate, Bush needed to find a way to separate himself from the hard-edged and aggressive approach of the Republican “revolutionaries” led by Newt Gingrich who had come to dominate Washington after the 1994 mid-term elections. According to pollsters, any association with Gingrich-style Republicanism would pose a particular problem with independent female voters—the once-heralded “soccer moms” whose political worth was considered to be more valuable than rubies.

In response, the Bush team conjured up a specific American archetype whose life would be transformed for the better by the policies Bush was advocating. Not a resolutely middle-class “soccer mom,” she was instead a type the soccer mom could empathize with: a working-class “waitress mom,” a single mother laboring at a Denny’s for $22,000 a year. Compassionate conservatism, it was said, would save her from penury. Bush’s tax-cut plan would remove her from the federal impost rolls entirely. His policy of reforming education would ensure that none of her children was “left behind” in the quest to find a better life. His plan to funnel aid to the needy through faith-based institutions would allow her to receive help from the loving arms of her nearby church rather than from the indifferent and distant hands of federal bureaucrats. And if her elderly father or grandmother fell sick, she would be able to depend on a new federal benefit that would render their prescription-drug costs all but free.

Without compassionate conservatism, Bush would not have been elected. And, by the time he took the oath of office in January 2001, he surely had reason to believe that successful implementation of this agenda was going to be his legacy as President. Indeed, every element of compassionate conservatism was eventually enshrined as legislation or executive policy, even as each version of it emerged from the Washington policy mill in significantly adulterated form.

As the foundation for a series of legislative successes in the administration’s first term, compassionate conservatism certainly deserves to be remembered. But America was attacked eight months after Bush took office. In the election campaigns that followed, the soccer mom gave way to the “security mom”—the woman whose paramount concern was said to be the physical safety of her family in an age of terror.

And so, instead of being judged on its record of helping the waitress mom, the Bush legacy is now universally believed to hang on three eventualities: the condition of Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of the American-led wars there, the safety of the American homeland from further terrorist attacks, and the fate of Bush’s program to advance liberty throughout the world. Compassionate conservatism is, already, little noted nor long remembered.

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That will not remain true, however, if Michael J. Gerson has his way. Well known as Bush’s chief speechwriter and rhetorical right-hand man for seven years, five of them in the White House, Gerson is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a columnist for Newsweek and the Washington Post. His new book, Heroic Conservatism, is an ambitious and deeply felt effort to bond Bush’s foreign-policy agenda to the agenda of compassionate conservatism. In Gerson’s view, both of these initiatives are built on the same moral framework, the elements of which are explicated by him in an urgent and original blend of memoir, polemic, and exhortation.

Heroic conservatism, according to Gerson, is “a commitment to changeless ideals—which, when confidently applied, are a force for revolutionary change in our nation and the world.” In part, he locates the basis of this commitment in “the tradition of Christian reflection on politics and government, embodied in Roman Catholic social teaching: a conservative respect for the institution of family and community, paired with a radical, uncompromising concern for the poor and weak.” But practically, he writes,

the roots of heroic conservatism are also found in America’s long history of religiously inspired reform movements—the work of morally passionate malcontents who pushed for abolition, insisted on the reform of prisons and mental hospitals, and led the struggle for women’s rights and civil rights.

For a personification of what he has in mind, Gerson points to Abraham Lincoln, the President “who was willing to risk bloody war rather than abandon the universal moral claims at the heart of the American experiment.”

As Gerson sees it, then, the activist effort to lift the American poor from their straitened circumstances springs from the same motivating cause as the effort to extend democratic freedoms to parts of the world where people have been denied them. Each expresses the moral conviction “that every human being has a worth independent of their background and accomplishments; that the least have the same value as the great.” And just as our times require “a sense of urgency in the cause of social justice at home,” so they also require “a belief that the interests of America are served by the hope and progress of people in other lands.”

Gerson’s project is thus nothing if not sweeping. But what is perhaps most interesting and unusual about Heroic Conservatism is that its argument is aimed less at Bush’s political and ideological opponents on the Left than at American conservatives. In the wake of the Republican rout in the 2006 mid-term elections, and with Democrats now in control of both houses of Congress, Gerson believes his party is once again in danger of embracing a view of government that is pinched, parsimonious, and politically wrong-headed. “Many conservatives,” he warns, contend that

it is necessary to move “beyond” Bush’s domestic policy when they are really recommending a return to the conservatism of the 1990’s—the era in which leaders like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey, and Senator Phil Gramm controlled the message of the movement . . . [and their] justified critique of government excess became an unbalanced hostility to government itself.

Nor is Gerson exercised by anti-big-government conservatives alone. He equally targets those cultural conservatives who believe that “America is in terminal moral decline,” and whose pessimism was memorably embodied in Robert Bork’s bestselling jeremiad of 1996, Slouching Toward Gomorrah. They, too, in Gerson’s reckoning, both misconstrue and threaten to obstruct the mission of heroic conservatism—the only kind of conservatism that is not only squarely in America’s best traditions but is the formula for future GOP successes.

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Michael Gerson is the first close associate of George W. Bush to write about the President as a boss and a colleague, and his portrait of this doomed-to-be-misunderstood man is a highlight of his book. The Bush we meet in its pages is

a man without a mask. Interest, frustration, disdain, or sadness come unfiltered to his expressive face. . . . When emotionally engaged, his authenticity is compelling. His personal honesty is nearly compulsive. He cries easily.

The two had their first meeting in 1999 when the future President was a Texas governor looking for a speechwriter and Gerson was working as a staff writer at U.S. News & World Report. (Gerson, whose last name is the legacy of a Jewish grandfather, was then perhaps the only open evangelical Christian on the staff of a major media publication—a distinction he may still hold.) A close relationship between the two men did not seem to be in the cards:

I found that I had little in common with the governor. He was athletic, outgoing, likable—and I was none of those things. He had a penchant for crude humor that made me uncomfortable; not blasphemous language, but the vulgarity of the locker room. After one policy session at the mansion, everyone had gone but me, and the governor had some time before his next appointment. He asked me, “Do you want to hang out a little while?” With rudeness that now seems crazed, I replied, “Not really.” He put his arm around me and said: “No, you don’t do that, do you?”

But Bush’s plainness of thought—“a folksy bluntness in a Texas idiom” —anchored Gerson, who had been seduced by the “highly crafted, rhythmic use of language” typical of the grand (and grandiose) speechifying of the 1960’s. And the reverse was also true. “Over time,” Gerson writes, Bush “came to demand” that his speeches address the most serious matters in the most elevated terms.

No President has ever had a more integral relationship with a writer, and what came out of this close connection supplies a key to understanding the policies of the Bush administration. The President, Gerson writes,

unlike many of his predecessors, consistently used major speeches to put his personal imprint on policy, to force changes within his own administration, and to set his doctrines in rhetorical stone, requiring future Presidents to deal with them. The goals of the Bush presidency can be found in the text, not the subtext—in the words he chose to use, not in maneuvering behind the scenes.

Alas for Bush (and Gerson), however, while the words the President chose to use were for the most part unmistakable, there has always been plenty of maneuvering behind the scenes to impede or frustrate the execution of the policies he has laid out. This is especially true, as Gerson ruefully notes, with regard to foreign policy. He points to the President’s unambiguous aim of promoting democracy in unfree lands, which in the case of Egypt included a forceful stand against the regime’s mistreatment of dissidents. But when, following a 2005 visit to Cairo by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak tightened even more painfully the screws on domestic reformers, “the American response was less than forceful—mainly the ritual protests of diplomacy. America watched, and did little. Something had shifted, which I protested with little effect.”

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That last sentence is pregnant with meaning. Throughout this book, Gerson argues for the primacy of the highest moral ideals in the conception and implementation of government policies. But it is precisely the gap between the lofty principles expressed in speeches and the often compromised policies enacted by officialdom that has helped create public skepticism about the efficacy of government action to cure social ills. This skepticism vexes Gerson, but he does not offer a reasoned argument against it. He simply cautions conservatives not to be excessively fearful of the so-called “law of unintended consequences”—i.e., the possibility that government action intended to do good can have the opposite result.

In issuing this caution, Gerson cites the well-known example of the War on Poverty—the multi-trillion-dollar experiment in national welfare that, 30 years after its initial passage during the Johnson administration, left America’s poor in worse condition from nearly every perspective. This policy cataclysm did indeed provide a painful lesson in what can happen when government sets out to cure complex social ills. And yet it also gave birth to something that, when first propounded by Charles Murray and others in the early 1980’s, seemed to be a wildly radical idea—namely, the cessation of welfare payments entirely.

This idea became the root of welfare reform. At first the province of conservative think tanks, it eventually came to be tried by Republican governors on an experimental basis—with such positive results that it was soon heralded as the policy of the future by, precisely, the same Republican politicians (Gingrich, Armey, DeLay, and Gramm) whose stewardship of the Republican party had been, in Gerson’s curt summation, “not a pretty sight.” The Republican Congress elected in 1994 wrote a welfare-reform bill cutting off direct payments after two years. In 1996, the bill was sent to a tortured President Bill Clinton and signed by him primarily because, in an election year, he was afraid his party would be punished at the polls if he failed to do so.

The wildly successful reform that followed is a prime example of how unintended consequences forced an entire nation to reverse a disastrous social policy. But what does Gerson do with this example? He writes:

When welfare reform was proposed in the mid-1990’s, a number of conservatives actually opposed it, arguing that the poor are incapable of work because they lack the habits and self-discipline necessary to hold a job. This is a traditional conservative temptation: cultural determinism, combined with disdain for the poor.

But in fact the only meaningful opposition to welfare reform came not from conservatives but from thinkers and politicians on the Left, some of whom were so committed to the failed policies of the past as to prophesy that passage of the reform bill would lead to the deaths of untold thousands of children from hunger. One wonders what can have motivated this astonishing bit of historical revisionism on Gerson’s part; the answer can only be the desire at all costs to dissuade conservatives from their instinctive wariness of government activism. But that wariness is well founded: it is almost impossible to name any large government program to address social ills that has not had unintended consequences.

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“Like all true conservatives,” Gerson writes, “I believe in limited government.” But there is very little in this book about limiting government’s reach and a great deal about expanding it. Gerson’s call to idealism is inspiring, especially in his chapters dealing with Bush’s campaign to combat AIDS in Africa—surely the most underappreciated initiative of this presidency and perhaps of any presidency in modern times. And his account of the thinking behind the magisterial series of addresses through which George W. Bush transformed the foreign policy of the United States after September 11 is essential reading for any student of American politics.
But it seems Gerson never really grasped the truth about compassionate conservatism. This is that it was not a party program, let alone a developed political philosophy, but a marketing gimmick. It is thus little wonder that eight years of exploring the depths and reaches of this topic have led to a very singular brand of politics. Michael Gerson’s party of heroic conservatism is, I fear, a party of one.

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