First Steps Out of Denial: Gerson and Wehner

Unlike Ramesh Ponnuru, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner don’t have much of a reputation for brave truth-telling when their fellow conservatives have gone awry. But their essay on the Republican Party in the latest issue of Commentary is a more comprehensive argument for a serious rethinking of conservative ideology in the light of adverse political and demographic trends and also a changing issue landscape.

I will note at the outset there’s a post by Blue Virginia‘s lowkell kicking around the progressive blogosphere dismissing the Gerson/Wehner piece as laughable nonsense. But lowkell’s main complaint is that the duo is falling short of a call for a GOP in the tradition of “Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Bob LaFollette, Dwight Eisenhower, John Chaffee, Lowell Weicker, Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, etc.” That is not happening in a billion years, for at least a hundred reasons I don’t need to go into at the moment. In the meantime, I’d reserve the many terms of abuse lowkell uses for Gerson and Wehner to those in the GOP who are denying the need for change altogether, or whose idea of change is to move the party still further to the Right.

With that distinction out of the way, I’d say Gerson and Wehner go a lot further than anyone this side of David Frum (who has close to zero influence in today’s GOP, unfortunately) in challenging the prevailing idea that their party just needs a nip and a tuck and better tech consultants. They begin by suggesting the party needs as much of a self-reexamination as Democrats (and Britain’s Labour Party) undertook prior to 1992, complete with reform-minded institutions (there is nothing like that now in the works, unless you think the Republican Mainstreet Partnership, which is no longer “Republican,” qualifies).

To abbreviate considerably, their five-part agenda for change involves: (1) a systematic attack on corporate welfare and on mega-banks to reduce the impression Republicans are engaged in class warfare for the wealthy and to signal acceptance that government has a positive role in the economy; (2) an abandonment of both rhetoric and policies inhospitable to immigrants; (3) a recommitment to the Burkean tradition of caring about “the common good,” which means a lot less hyper-individualism; (4) an inclusive rather than an exclusive approach to cultural issues, mainly by focusing on efforts to strengthen the economic viability of families; and (5) acceptance of science, including the reality and the significance of climate change.

There are plenty of “to be sure” sentences scattered throughout the essay making it clear the authors aren’t for abandoning all or even most of conservatism’s pre-existing ideological tenets or policy positions. But there’s also language like this, which is far from the prevailing tendency of conservatives to either deny or celebrate inequality:

The Republican goal is equal opportunity, not equal results. But equality of opportunity is not a natural state; it is a social achievement, for which government shares some responsibility. The proper reaction to egalitarianism is not indifference. It is the promotion of a fluid society in which aspiration is honored and rewarded.

It’s a separate question, of course, whether any of these arguments can find traction in today’s Republican Party. The answer, I think, is a resounding “no,” or perhaps “hell, no!” Accepting climate change as a serious public challenge, and admitting there is a positive role for government in creating equal opportunity, are both wildly provocative ideas among conservatives these days. But if Republicans suffer another couple of serious electoral beatings in the near future, then the balance of power in the GOP between those who keep finding reasons not to change (or reasons to become even more radical) and those sounding like Gerson and Wehner will inevitably shift just enough to make a real “struggle for the soul of the GOP” possible. Since it would be nice to have not just one but two major political parties trying to make government work for the public interest, it’s worth separating the constructive sheep from the nihilist goats in observing the talk on the Right.

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.