Gerson’s Nostalgia Trip

Mike Gerson’s latest WaPo column will get some attention because he is one of the few conservatives anywhere to acknowledge that Mitt Romney and the GOP do indeed have a problem with women, and not one that can just be blamed on Obama or the liberal media.

Not that anyone familiar with Gerson would have imagined for a moment that he’d suggest a recalibration of the GOP message on reproductive rights issues, but he does dismiss that avenue in the third graph. Instead, he attributes his party’s weakness among women to general meanness:

Women and independent voters have seen a party enthusiastically confirming its most damaging stereotypes. The composite Republican candidate — reflecting the party’s ideological mean — has been harsh on immigration, confrontational on social issues, simplistic in condemning government and silent on the struggles of the poor. How many women would find this profile appealing on eHarmony?

This is the hidden curse of the Republican congressional triumph of 2010. Republican activists came to believe that purity is all that is necessary for victory. But a presidential candidate, it turns out, requires a broader ideological attraction than your average tea party House freshman.

For Gerson, the answer, unsurprisingly, is to go back to his own archetypal moment, George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign and its proclamation of a new, warm-and-fuzzy “compassionate conservatism”:

In 2000, George W. Bush campaigned — in both the primaries and the general election — on increasing the quality of education for poor children, on humane immigration reform and on expanding care by faith-based organizations for the addicted and homeless. These issues were personally important to Bush. They also signaled to independents and women that he could think beyond normal ideological boundaries.

Well, Bush also campaigned on a big fat tax cut for the wealthy, and outlawing abortion, and a lot of other things that did not strike many voters as “compassionate.” Moreover, in office, his “compassionate conservative” agenda, beyond the big vote-buying commitments to Medicare Rx Drugs and immigration reform, didn’t amount to much more than subsidies for conservative ministers. But never mind: the bigger problem, as Gerson acknowledges, is that Bush’s “compassionate conservative” rhetoric and the policies that were supposed to redeem it are now “broadly reviled among conservatives.” That’s putting it mildly.

Somehow or other, perhaps because he believes all that stuff about Romney being an unprincipled flip-flopper, Gerson seems to think Mitt will figure this out and defy the overwhelming, litmus-test-enforced disgust towards “compassionate conservatism” exhibited by today’s Republicans. Truth is, Romney is probably the least capable of any available GOP presidential nominee to do that. When Bush first launched “compassionate conservatism,” he was the hand-picked and universal favorite of the entire conservative movement; he had plenty of credibility to burn on the Right. Romney? Not so much. His poor favorability ratings among self-identified conservatives may not matter in November thanks to the party’s unifying Obama-hatred, but the one thing that could lead to a genuine revolt would be for Romney to defy the psychologically critical belief on the Right that Bush’s heresies against ideological orthodoxy are the only reason the GOP lost power in 2006 and 2008.

So Gerson’s anachronistic plea that Romney “show some humanity” is very likely to fall on deaf ears. And I suspect this column is mainly intended to enable its author to say after Election Day, “I told you so.”

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.