Friday, Michael Gerson became the latest former Bush operative to escalate the post-election war on the Tea Party and Sarah Palin when he published a Washington Post column entitled “The GOP’s Sarah Palin Problem.” In his column, Gerson mangles the facts terribly, even blaming Palin and Senator Jim DeMint for Sharron Angle’s ill-fated nomination in spite of the fact that neither endorsed Angle until after she won the nomination. Doug Brady dismantled the rest of Gerson’s specious argument at Conservatives4Palin. But most ironic was his closing statement that “the leading figure of the Tea Party movement seems increasingly indifferent to Republican fortunes and increasingly tolerant of disturbing extremism.”
I wonder how it comports with President Bush that just as he comes forth from seclusion to begin his book tour and rehab his image, a number of his former operatives like Gerson are reminding everyone of their war on the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. While Bush’s big-government policies might be excused, given his wartime presidency and small mandate, as the best conservatives could have hoped for at the time, those who once believed he was only compromising conservatism out of circumstantial necessity are becoming increasingly disabused of such notions. The risk for the former president is that conservatives become much less generous in those presumptions and excuses the more his operatives refuse to allow the Republican Party to move on.
First of all, recall that Sarah Palin identified Nicolle Wallace and Steve Schmidt as the individuals who undermined her during the 2008 campaign — both borrowed high-level Bush operatives. Similarly Karl Rove, Schmidt’s mentor, clearly sabotaged Tea Party candidate Christine O’Donnell’s campaign. Not only did he obliterate O’Donnell’s post-primary honeymoon by eviscerating her before she had even given her victory speech, but he then had the audacity to wonder why she wasn’t “grabbing the imagination of the people of Delaware and moving ahead in the polls like these other candidates did around the country” after her “stunning upset.” It goes without saying that former Bush speechwriter David Frum has spent the last two years trying to destroy Palin and the Tea Party. Lastly, the New York Daily News reported last week that Bush himself has strongly disparaged Palin among his friends.
All of these highly public and ferocious attacks on conservatives seem to verify everything Matt Latimer has said about the Bush White House’s efforts, particularly Rove’s, to purge the Republican Party of conservatism, but Michael Gerson’s post-White House efforts might be the most incriminating of all.
Gerson has a manner of employing far-left tactics against conservatives that resembles a more erudite and magniloquent Meghan McCain. While the Republican Party has been huddling closer and closer to the fulcrum of the political seesaw trying to counterbalance the Democrats’ move to the far left, Gerson disproportionately focuses his attacks on the supposed dangerous radicalism on the right. Whether he is denouncing conservatives for “refus[ing] to police the excesses of their own,” equating O’Reilly with Olbermann, decrying “Tea Party Jacobinism” and their “Bolshevik approach,” or accusing conservatives of “nativism” and of proposing to “undertake a multiyear effort to feed racial conflict in America,” he is validating the left’s narratives about the right’s supposed radicalism.
Perhaps the worst leftist narrative Gerson promotes is that conservatives are “anti-government,” which is where Gerson really reveals that he simply isn’t conservative at all, regardless of how many times he labels himself as such. In 2007 Gerson denounced the backlash against Bush’s “efforts to redefine the Republican Party” as an effort to “adopt a mean, anti-government message.” In his book released that year, Heroic Conservatism, Gerson wrote that “anti-government Republicans saw Katrina as an opportunity to cut off medicine to old people,” confirming “the worst image of Republicans as the party of shriveled hearts.” He also explained “traditional conservatism has a piece missing — a piece that is shaped like a conscience.” Gerson has also been highlighting and warning of the dangerous “faux-revolutionary” language of conservatives. Worst of all, in his September 27, 2010 column, Gerson suggested that conservatives “have their own consistency problems. A misty-eyed patriotism is difficult to reconcile with anti-government radicalism. How can you love your country and hate its government?”
I could go on for a while, but given the libelous drumbeat from liberal media warning of the conservative or Tea-Party domestic terrorists that have never existed, this last suggestion by Gerson that conservatives claim to “love” their country but “hate its government” is a particularly low blow. It is awfully close to the Timothy McVeigh narrative that suggests McVeigh’s problems with the FBI, a government institution, must mean that he was a conservative anti-government radical. Conservatives aren’t “anti-government” at all; they just support different parts of the government than liberals do.
Conservatives believe, as Milton Friedman advocated, that government should get out of industries and endeavors that can be handled by the free market and focus on the chores that government alone can do, including law enforcement and national defense. Leftists believe the opposite, as summarized neatly by Robert Gibbs when he explained the “professional left” would only be satisfied when “we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon.” Polling reflects the same. How is “misty-eyed patriotism” in any way difficult to reconcile with conservatism, particularly in comparison with the left’s position? What does it say about Gerson that he is intent on smearing conservatism, consistently using leftist terms like “anti-government radicalism” and “anti-immigrant” when he knows full well conservatives only oppose big government and illegal immigration?
It is hysterical for Gerson or anyone from the Bush camp to accuse Palin of being “increasingly indifferent to Republican fortunes” given her success and the deliberate efforts of Rove and other Bush loyalists to undermine conservative Republicans at every turn, not to mention the obliteration of both the party and conservatism that occurred on their watch. Regardless of the affection and respect many conservatives accord to the Bush legacy, that generosity will dry up the more the former members of the Bush administration try to protect their legacy not merely by constructive argument but by undermining conservatism. The tactics used by Gerson and Rove in this struggle will eventually redound on their former boss, and if this is their notion of “saving conservatism from itself,” they may find themselves needing a life raft.
Ken Larrey was a student at Duke University during the time of the Duke Lacrosse scandal. He founded an organization, Duke Students for an Ethical Duke, dedicated to aiding Duke students facing action from Judicial Affairs, and ensuring the lessons of the affair were not lost on the institution.