Gerson makes his case

GERSON MAKES HIS CASE…. It’s not every day I’m called out in a Washington Post print column, so I suppose I’m compelled to return once again to the discussion surrounding Saturday’s “sabotage” item.

Today, former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who passed along a message on Twitter the other day calling me an “idiot,” devotes much of his print column to the observation I raised. Not surprisingly, the Post columnist wasn’t especially impressed by my presentation.

He suggests at the outset that my argument is somehow an attempt to avoid dealing with the “inadequacies” and “failure” of “liberalism.” It’s an odd line of reasoning — Gerson’s former boss bequeathed an economic catastrophe, a jobs crisis, a massive deficit, and a housing crisis, among other calamities. Democratic policymakers, scrambling to address the catastrophic failures of Bush-brand conservatism, have managed to create an economy that’s growing, creating jobs, and generating private-sector profits, while stabilizing a financial system that teetered on collapse. (What’s more, if Gerson believes the size and scope of the Obama administration’s economic agenda are consistent with what “liberalism” has in mind, he knows far less about the ideology than he should.)

If Gerson is anxious to explore the “inadequacies” and “failures” of a modern political ideology, I might suggest he’s looking in the wrong place.

But more importantly, Gerson’s column takes issue with his perceptions of my argument.

[T]here is an alternative narrative, developed by those who can’t shake their reverence for Obama. If a president of this quality and insight has failed, it must be because his opponents are uniquely evil, coordinated and effective. The problem is not Obama but the ruthless conspiracy against him.

So Matt Yglesias warns the White House to be prepared for “deliberate economic sabotage” from the GOP – as though Chamber of Commerce SWAT teams, no doubt funded by foreigners, are preparing attacks on the electrical grid. Paul Krugman contends that “Republicans want the economy to stay weak as long as there’s a Democrat in the White House.” Steve Benen explains, “We’re talking about a major political party . . . possibly undermining the strength of the country — on purpose, in public, without apology or shame — for no other reason than to give themselves a campaign advantage in 2012.” Benen’s posting was titled “None Dare Call it Sabotage.”

So what is the proof of this charge? It seems to have something to do with Republicans criticizing quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve. And opposing federal spending. And, according to Benen, creating “massive economic uncertainty by vowing to gut the national health care system.”

That’s incomplete, at best. Use of the phrase “seems to have something to do with” is Gerson’s way of summarizing a larger argument that he may have struggled to fully understand.

So perhaps I should clarify matters.

We are, by all measures, in the midst of a fragile economic recovery. Under the circumstances, Americans very likely hope that policymakers in Washington are committed to improving economic conditions further.

It’s against this backdrop that congressional Republicans have vowed to take capital out of the economy, create more public-sector unemployment, eliminate effective jobs programs, urge the Federal Reserve to stop focusing on lowering unemployment, and fight tooth and nail to protect a tax policy that’s been tried for nearly a decade without success. By their own admission, GOP officials have said economic growth is not their priority; Hoover-like deficit reduction is.

While advocating this agenda, one of the most powerful Republican officials on Capitol Hill has argued, more than once, that his “top priority” isn’t job creation, but rather, “denying President Obama a second term in office.”

Taken together, I suggested it’s time for an uncomfortable conversation. I obviously can’t read the minds of GOP policymakers, but it seems at least worth talking about whether they’re prioritizing the destruction of a presidency over the needs of the nation.

It’s also worth emphasizing that my point about “uncertainty” was meant as a form of mockery. The right is obsessed with the debunked notion that “economic uncertainty” is responsible for the lack of robust growth, so in raising my observation, I noted that it’s the Republican agenda that seems focused on adding to this uncertainty — vowing to gut the national health care system, promising to re-write the rules overseeing the financial industry, vowing to re-write business regulations in general, considering a government shutdown, and even weighing the possibility of sending the United States into default.

What’s more, I’m fascinated by the notion that I’m describing a “conspiracy” — a word Gerson uses four times in his column. I made no such argument. There’s no need for secret meetings in smoke-filled rooms; there’s no reason to imagine a powerful cabal pulling strings behind the scenes. The proposition need not be fanciful at all — a stronger economy would improve President Obama’s re-election chances, so Republicans are resisting policies and ideas that would lead to this result.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wasn’t especially cagey about his intentions: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president…. Our single biggest political goal is to give [the Republican] nominee for president the maximum opportunity to be successful.”

Given this, is it really that extraordinary to wonder if this might include rejecting proposals that would make President Obama look more successful on economic policy — especially given the fact that McConnell’s approach to the economy appears to be carefully crafted to do the opposite of what’s needed? After Gerson’s West Wing colleagues effectively accused Democrats of treason in 2005, is it beyond the pale to have a conversation about Republicans’ inexplicable motivations?

I’d hoped my original argument would generate a larger discussion, and I suppose it has to a certain extent, but it’s nevertheless striking to me that Gerson’s column makes no effort whatsoever to respond with anything substantive. He finds it sufficient to dismiss the very idea casually, as if the observation merits a print column, but not a policy-focused refutation.

And that’s a shame. It’s not uncommon for Republican media personalities to make the transition from “loyal Bushies” to sanctimonious pundits, but I’d hoped Gerson, after having several days to think about it, would come up with a more compelling, more thoughtful, argument on an issue of national importance.

My hopes, alas, were in vain.

* Update: I’d originally included an incorrect sentence in this post about Gerson on Krugman, so I removed it. Apologies.

* Second Update: Greg Sargent raises some terrific points in response to Gerson, most notably the fact that GOP leaders have, repeatedly and on the record, said “they needed to deny Obama successes for their own political purposes.”