Gerson’s “Raging Bonfire of Straw Men”

Best I can tell, the small tribe of self-identified GOP moderates did not react to the president’s second inaugural address in any sort of consistent way. David Frum was strictly analytical about it, noting mostly that Obama had returned to an old conception of inaugural addresses as agenda-setters. David Brooks was characteristically indirect about it, suggesting Obama offered half the prescription the country needs.

And then there was Michael Gerson, who was simply furious, and for a reason that separates him from Frum and Brooks: he somehow couldn’t recognize the GOP in the opposition Obama denounced, calling the president’s anathemas “a bonfire of straw men:”

Those who oppose [his] agenda, in Obama’s view, are not a very admirable lot. They evidently don’t want our wives, mothers and daughters to “earn a living equal to their efforts.” They would cause some citizens “to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.” They mistake “absolutism for principle” and “substitute spectacle for politics” and “treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” They would have people’s “twilight years . . . spent in poverty” and ensure that the parents of disabled children have “nowhere to turn.” They would reserve freedom “for the lucky” and believe that Medicare and Social Security “sap our initiative,” and they see this as “a nation of takers.” They “deny the overwhelming judgment of science” on climate change, don’t want love to be “equal” and apparently contemplate “perpetual war.”

The unfairness of this indictment strikes Gerson as self-evident. I wonder which Republican Party or conservative movement he’s been watching over the last four years? No, it does not describe every single GOPer, but where is it grossly off? Most Republicans have systematically opposed “equal pay” legislation for women on grounds that all sorts of factors–including the designs of the Deity–other than discrimination are responsible for disparate pay. Every single competitive state where Republicans were in charge of the electoral machinery going into this last election did try to restrict voting opportunities; how did Gerson miss that? On the question of Social Security and Medicare, maybe Republicans didn’t come out and express pleasure at the idea of reduced coverage, but many, including such relative “moderates” as Mitch Daniels, have repeatedly argued that these programs as we’ve always known them are fundamentally incompatible with the contemporary needs of the country, regardless of who gets hurt. Is the “nation of takers” attribution unfair? Well, it was explicitly articulated by the unquestioned icon of today’s conservative movement and the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, and implicitly expressed on more than one occasion by presidential nominee Mitt Romney; it’s not as though Obama made it up or got it from Glenn Beck or anything. As for climate-change denial: where on earth has Gerson been? It’s everywhere among Republicans!

I can perhaps understand why Michael Gerson is having some trouble taking an honest look at his party, since for the most part the price of admission for credibility of late has been to wipe one’s feet on “compassionate conservatism” as a “betrayal of principle.” Which brings me to the final epithet hurled by Obama to which Gerson objects: mistaking absolutism for principle. Put away everything but that issue, and Obama probably wouldn’t have to make so pointed an inaugural address. But yes, today’s GOP and conservative movement is suffused with the conviction that there is a permanent, unchanging arrangement for governing the country that was enshrined (perhaps by Almighty God) in the Declaration of Independence (which is exactly why Obama felt constrained to reclaim that document yesterday!) and must now be implemented and preserved until the end of time via a “Cut, Cap and Balance” constitutional amendment. If this isn’t “absolutism,” then I don’t know what qualifies for the term.

If Gerson wants to be angry at the condition of bipartisan discussion, he needs to look a little closer to home.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.