Political Animal


January 22, 2013 1:16 PM Gerson’s “Raging Bonfire of Straw Men”

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • bleh on January 22, 2013 1:33 PM:


    Sure he does! A high-profile Republican needs to look realistically at statements and other actions in light of facts and draw a reasonably objective conclusion.

    And pigs need to fly, so we can have pork wings!

    Ahahahahahaa! Ahahaha! Stop! You're killing me!

  • c u n d gulag on January 22, 2013 1:36 PM:

    When he looks in the mirror, my guess is that Gerson sees a man who looks like Brad Pitt, and has the soul of Albert Schweitzer.

    Mike, Mike, Mike...
    YOU were one of the main speech-writers for the most sociopathic individual who ever held the Presidency. And he was the better and less sociopathic of the top two in the Executive branch.

    YOU helped create the mess YOUR party is in.
    YOU wrote the pretty words to mask the ugly laws and policies YOUR party stood, and still stands, for.

    That ain't coffee you'll smell if you ever wake up - that's an overflowing cup of sh*t and p*ss.

  • Bokonon on January 22, 2013 1:44 PM:

    Gerson is a skilled apologist for his party. And he treats his job like a wartime propagandist. This opinion piece is part of Gerson's ongoing effort to claim that Obama is the partisan, the divider, the unreasonable one at the nation's political table. Constant outrage at Obama serves as the glue that holds the GOP together, and keeps people on the party bandwagon. If you are focused relentlessly on the enemy, then you are less likely to question your own side ... or wonder about the cannibals and headhunters in your own ranks.

    So the gnashing of teeth and pearl-clutching from Gerson is entirely predictible. Gerson is ginning up the usual outrage, and trying to make Obama's characterizations and factual statements about the nation's political situation CONTROVERSIAL ... when they really aren't.

  • catclub on January 22, 2013 1:47 PM:

    I would suggest that Obama was actually reclaiming the Constitution, not the Declaration of Independence. Isn't the start of it: "We, the People of the United States...", which Obama repeated rather often
    in the speech?

  • biggerbox on January 22, 2013 1:52 PM:

    Gerson should notify the authorities immediately. Apparently a massive identity theft has been committed. Someone must have stolen the identity of the Republicans and be taking all those policy positions without them!

    Cancel the credit cards!

  • R. Porrofatto on January 22, 2013 2:16 PM:

    Forget about paying attention to his party, doesn't he read his own newspaper? The likes of Marc Thiessen, George F. Will, Charles Krauthammer, Jennifer Rubin, Fred Kaplan, and fer chrissakes, Dana Milbank, et al? Obama was being polite in tagging the right wing GOP for what it is. Talk about shameless denial of the New Gooper reality that he helped create.

  • R on January 22, 2013 2:23 PM:

    From Gerson's own paper, an article from 2008 (about the Lily Ledbetter act) entitled "Senate Republicans Block Pay Disparity Measure" :

    Does the poor man not know how to use a search engine, given how poor his memory is? He's actually provided a pretty good description of Obama's opposition, except for the "straw men" part, as Ed has clearly documented.

  • Josef K on January 22, 2013 2:34 PM:

    mistaking absolutism for principle

    In indirect defense of Gerson and the rest, most people aren't psychologically equipt to consciously acknowledge when they've become complicit in undermining the foundations of their own society. And rarely do you find someone willing to acknowledge that "principle" is a catch-all excuse for some of the most reprehensible and inhuman acts imaginable.

    Besides, Gerson is a pundit. Since when do you expect either honesty or consistency from such?

  • howard on January 22, 2013 3:13 PM:

    there is a simple way to identify the handful of honest conservatives still out there: they aren't shills for the gop.

    so, for example, bruce bartlett is an honest conservative.

    david frum has moments of honest conservatism.

    but i can't think of too many others, and certainly not michael gerson, who quite obviously puts party over principle.

  • davidp on January 22, 2013 3:43 PM:

    Gerson and others like him may think they have to write silly articles like this as a way of buying credit so that they can criticise the extremists in their own ranks. Anything less than this, the conservatives will tell him he's a RINO. Heck, they probably do that anyway.

  • thebewilderness on January 22, 2013 3:47 PM:

    The problem is never what the Republicans are doing and trying to do. The big horrible terrible dreadful problem is the POTUS pointing out what the Republicans are doing and trying to do.

  • bigtuna on January 22, 2013 4:02 PM:

    This must be a new repub "moderate" talking point. Two other exas:

    1. On NPR yesterday, some Reupub. commentator and the ever pleasant Linda Chavez were portraying the past and upcoming negotiations as if Obama had mistreated the repubs., and had not really brough anything to the table.

    2. The NYTimes had an article featuring several academic experts on negotiation, chastizing both sides for poor negotiationing tactics and approaches.

    In both cases, the false meme being propagated was that there were equal parts blame for both sides, and the assumption was that both sides want to reach an agreement. There was NO discussion that most of the "negotations" have actually been one party talks; the othe party has no real interest in or support for an agreement.

    This sort of thing allows the MSM to maintain the notion of fair coverage, rather than actually telling the truth that the repubs are crazed rabid lying dogs.

  • Karl Weber on January 22, 2013 5:14 PM:

    It's funny--reread Obama's speech and you notice he never once attributed those destructive policies to Republicans or conservatives. Yet Gerson is angrily denying that Republicans and conservatives are responsible for them. I wonder why he feels the need to defend them against a charge Obama never made? A guilty conscience, maybe?

  • Helen Bedd on January 22, 2013 5:51 PM:

    Not quite sure if this fits the textbook definition of a straw man, but I'd note that Gerson creates a Republican party that currently doesn't exist, props it up then defends it...

  • rana on January 22, 2013 6:28 PM:

    Really, Karl hits the nail on the head. Obama's speech was an Olive branch to the Republican party. Most of Obama's major objectives are Republican objectives. For example, Who disagrees with increased safety for kids? Or equal pay for equal work? It was only the implied--but not stated--methods of getting meeting these objectives that cause Republicans to vomit.

  • James M on January 22, 2013 9:04 PM:

    I agree with all of the comments but would like to suggest a different angle. What if BO really is playing his version of 3 dimensional chess and has gone on the attack? He may have decided (as I have) that the current GOP is rotten to the core and has to be destroyed.

    In any case, if the GOP blocks all his major policy proposals I would be very surprised if BO doesn't campaign hard to create a Democratic House majority in 2014. As for Michael Gerson, he strikes me as a kinder, gentler version of Karl Rove, locked into cognitive dissonance and projection.