Political Animal


February 18, 2013 4:10 PM First Steps Out of Denial: Gerson and Wehner

By Ed Kilgore

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 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.


  • c u n d gulag on February 18, 2013 4:48 PM:

    Yes, yes, it all sounds good.

    But here's where Reich-wing talk radio, the inter-tubes, FOX, Wingnut Welfare, and the Epistemic Closure of Conservatism, will continue to kill them like a terminal cancer.

    Where is the profit in moderation?

    Not in talk radio.
    Not on the internet.
    Not on FOX.
    And certainly not on every Conservative losers fall-back position - some place on the board or on the staff of some Reich-wing "Think Tank."

    By their very greedy and sociopathic nature, Conservatives think more about the individual, than the collective group.

    Sure, it would be better for the Republican Party to move back towards something that even vaguely looks like the center - and maybe even if it wanted to - the individual free agents on their team, care more about themselves and their future prospects, rather than the party.

    That 27% of the population who are "Authoritarians" and "Followers of Authoritarians," have a lot of disposable income for "Real Conservatism" - even the poorest sucker, mark, rube, fool, idiot, and/or moron, will gladly send his/her last penny if they think it will help defeat the forces of "Big Gubmit" and "Soshlizm."

    And where does that leave the reformers?

    As long as there's a profit motive to be on the extreme right, reformers will be chastised in the media if they are pundits, and primaried if they are politicians.

    So, as far as moving back to the center for the Republican Party, I don't see a winning hand in this mess for them at all.

  • Stevio on February 18, 2013 5:09 PM:

    Rush Limbaugh will never accept any of that reality. He will go the way of the Dodo once the "third" party" is created and the smart money shifts from "know-nothing" to "know enough to get elected".

    It will be two election cycles, the first 2016, then when Hilory/Castro crushes Rubio/Bush (or visa-versa).

    The Limbaughs of the world will pack it in...Rove too...

  • troglodyte on February 18, 2013 5:22 PM:

    Indeed, it is hard to imagine a Republican Revival of Reality (RRR) as long as Limbaugh rules talk radio. Too many elected Republicans subscribe to his rantings, let alone the voters who elected them. It will be a long slow turn for this ocean liner. RRR will occur in my lifetime, but definitely not in 2014, and maybe not in 2016 either.

  • davidp on February 18, 2013 5:50 PM:

    It's all too likely, for all the familiar reasons, that the party will do well enough in 2014 to give the extremist wing another lease of life. Gerson and the rest must be ready for a long period in the wilderness.

  • sgetti on February 18, 2013 5:53 PM:

    Look how far Romney made it in politics by flip-flopping. Half the country still voted for him even when his multiple-position disorder was common knowledge. So, hey, why not a whole party start going chameleon?

  • Michael Robinson on February 18, 2013 5:54 PM:

    "Admitting there is a positive role for government" is apostasy from the Church of the Chicago School, where Serious People worship.

    From an interview with James Heckman (June 2005):

    I studied the textile industry, where I had data going back to 1915, and found tremendous changes occurring in a three-year period after the passage and enforcement of Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act] in 1964. In South Carolina and the South in general, there was massive integration.

    It took me a long time to piece this evidence together. And to be honest, I found that some of my colleagues at Chicago were very hostile to this finding, and some remain so. Some want to believe that markets by themselves will solve problems like racial disparity. Markets do many useful things, but they did not solve the problem of race. Not in America. That's probably heresy to admit it as a Chicago economist, but I became convinced that a doctrinaire notion that markets would solve the problem of discrimination is false. Civil rights legislation and civil rights activity played huge roles in eliminating overt segregation in the United States.

  • bluestatedon on February 18, 2013 6:29 PM:

    "Barack Obama has put in place an agenda of unreconstructed progressivism..."

    Just that ludicrous statement alone is enough to warrant total dismissal of this essay, but that's not the most serious defect in it.

    How any allegedly serious critics of the current state of the Republican Party could manage to write this many words without directly confronting the single most relevant characteristic of today's Republican political class is a testament to the fact that virtually no Republicans perceive the problem to begin with. That problem is that today's GOP is essentially a theocratic party dominated by people at every level of elected office across the country who are evangelical Christianists subscribing to Biblical inerrancy and the belief that their highly selective reading of that document is all that an extremely complex and diverse nation needs to run its affairs in the 21st century. Not only is this brand of religious belief a fundamental cause of the problems Gerson and Wehner address in points 4 and 5, it's also a fundamental underpinning of that peculiar strain of hyper-individual American Exceptionalist, "God wants America to rule the world and cut capital gains taxes" dogma that reactionary billionaires like the Koch and Scaife families justify their predatory economic policies with, which is specifically relevant to points 1, 2, and 3.

    Given that these fundamentalist Christianists see themselves as waging a Jesus-sanctified holy war against liberal gay infidel Democrats, the chances of persuading them to moderate their views in order to benefit their party are virtually nil. That's not how fundamentalists think.

    Look at it this way: when an announced candidate—and strong favorite—for the GOP Senatorial nomination (to replace noted GOP chickenhawk Saxby Chambliss) declares that evolution and embryology are from "the pit of hell," and that the earth is less than 10,000 years old because that's what the Bible says, that's all the evidence necessary to illustrate how far down the crazy hole the GOP base has gone. Paul Broun in Georgia is no different from Todd Akin in Missouri or Richard Mourdock in Indiana; to these people, nothing could be more welcome than dumping the Constitution and replacing it with their version of the Bible. There will be no reasoning or accommodation possible with these people, and Gerson and Wehner appear to be blithely clueless about this fact.

  • Daddy Love on February 18, 2013 6:33 PM:


    (1) Not happening.
    (2) Not happening.
    (3) Not happening.
    (4) Not happening.
    (5) Not happening.

  • Ray on February 18, 2013 6:47 PM:

    If their recommendations were adopted, wouldn't Republicans become, well. . . Democrats?

  • Mimikatz on February 18, 2013 7:03 PM:

    Agree. It all sounds good, but as long as Limbaugh remains on the air and there is still money to be made peddling fear and ignorance to the GOP Faithful, there is too little incentive to change even if it means losing the Presidency for a couple more cycles. When the demographics make them completely a regional party and/or Arizona and Kansas melt and Florida and Louisiana are innundated, we may see change. Until then, denial is just too comforting.

  • janinsanfran on February 18, 2013 7:05 PM:

    A more likely trajectory for the GOP and all of us: continued hunkering down in the old white supremacist bunker with funding from our stupider plutocrats until Dems become about 2/3s of us and Republicans cease to matter (except in southern redoubts.) Then the Dems split into two plausible factions, one business oriented, the other populist that compete to run the government.

  • Someone on February 18, 2013 7:11 PM:

    I don't understand why Dems can't make the 'equality of opportunity / equality of outcome' case. No one but the 22%-ers think Obama and Romney's kids have exactly the same opportunity as a kid born in Detroit, or South Tucson, or Southie, etc.

  • paul on February 18, 2013 8:46 PM:

    How many times are Serious Democrats going to get played like this?

    Every time a respected republican shows the slightest indication of recognizing that their party colleagues are bugfsck crazy, a few things happen:

    1) Serious Democrats announce the republican party is coming to its senses and are widely reported as such, essentially saying that the republicans are now Good Guys again

    2) The respected republicans are either excoriated or simply ignored by the rest of the GOP, which goes on being as bugfsck crazy as ever

    3) In the next election, the respected republicans once again throw their support to their party, either out of tribalism or greed or because the only reason for their supposed apostasy was to gull the public into thinking that the GOP might not be quite as crazy and evil this time around.

    It's all kabuki, and it may work to win elections, but it doesn't make any policy difference at all. So why do Serious Democrats keep enabling it?

    If a respected republican wants to come over to the decent side, they don't just have to confess, they have to atone.

  • Dug on February 18, 2013 8:52 PM:

    Accepting the truth of climate change would require admitting that Al Gore was right. And that's going to be too much for many Republicans to swallow.

  • reidmc on February 18, 2013 10:00 PM:

    That Commentary piece is a laff riot.

  • jonh on February 19, 2013 11:29 AM:

    It was not so long ago that the Democrats were divided between a liberal-ish north and a segregationist-Right south, kinda-sorta straddling a moderate Republican party. So, such a situation is possible. (As Tweedledee said, 'if it was so, it might be...".)

    There is plenty of ideological room to the left of the Democrats, and there is no northern republican party. If there are enough Republicans who want to hold power over all other interests, they could support and win northern seats by running as economic leftists/social conservatives. They might find a lot of support from current northern liberals who either fit that combination, or are willing to compromise on social interests in order to have a truly pro-union political home. There are still some paleoconservative/Burke fans who might promote unions as mediating institutions. Stranger things have happened.

    One way to tell the story of the Republican devolution is that they made the error of defining the party's ideology as being to the right of the Democrats, so that when Bill Clinton and the DLC made the Democrats into a center-right party, the R's had nowhere to go but the extreme right.

    They can't keep this up forever, and they have nothing to lose by opening up a northern shop that reflects, perhaps, Germany's Christian Democrats.

    Perhaps it is time that the U.S. Republican Party make peace with the 19th century, and adopt policies not so far to the right of Kaiser Wilhelm. They have nothing to lose but their principles.

  • ex-curm on February 19, 2013 2:11 PM:

    Gerson's Washington Post column today was full of denial. He insisted Dems are only pushing more tax changes to zing Boehner; and said that the only serious thing to do is to cut Medicare and Medicaid. This W. Post column of his is not an example of a step out of denial

  • JM917 on March 05, 2013 10:30 PM:

    Limbaugh isn't going to pack it in--ever. Too many idiots tune in to him and keep the revenues flowing. The only things that can stop him are health-related (including the consequences of booze and drugs) or a scandal involving money and sex. And behind him stands a phalanx of other yakkers, likewise raking in the bucks.

    In the end, a whole generation of angry and entitled-feeling white males (in whose demographic cohort I am numbered) is going to have to die off before America is purged. While they still huff and puff, the GOTea is not going to change.