Category: Michael Gerson
Gerson: Politics with a purpose
| November 27, 2012 | 9:49 am | Michael Gerson | No comments

Published for The Washington Post, November 27, 2012

It is Steven Spielberg’s singular achievement to have made a heroic movie about compromise and petty corruption. In “Lincoln,” he pans away from a field of corpses in Petersburg, 130 miles down the road from Washington, and puts a tight frame on the Cabinet meetings, legislative debates and backroom confrontations where the final, decisive battles of the Civil War were fought. Combat determined the outcome of the War Between the States. Politics determined its meaning, culminating in passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Spielberg focuses on the peculiar process that brought down the peculiar institution. It is an epic staged in cramped, Victorian rooms.

Better than any other, the movie captures President Lincoln’s awkward, shuffling, distinctly democratic greatness. The low in him that caused sophisticates to sneer. The high in him shaped by Shakespeare and Euclid. The humanity, frailty and aching introspection. The shrewdness, decisiveness and ferocious will. It is the democratic faith that exceptional leaders can be found among common folk. But it is still shocking that such a leader should be Thomas Lincoln’s son. It seemed to have shocked Abe Lincoln himself, who as a youth fancied himself the offspring of a noble Virginia ancestor. Even at an early age, says historian David Herbert Donald, Lincoln carried “the self-confidence of a man who has never met his intellectual equal.”

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Gerson: Religious conservatives’ uphill battle
| November 16, 2012 | 10:50 am | Michael Gerson | No comments

Published for The Washington Post, November 15, 2012

The Catholic Church — a politically and ethnically sprawling institution — has no natural home on the American ideological spectrum. Neither major party combines moral conservatism with a passion for social justice. So Catholic leaders have often challenged Democrats to be more pro-life and Republicans to be more concerned about immigrants and the poor.

But President Obama’s first term was a period of unexpected aggression against the rights of religious institutions. His Justice Department, in theHosanna-Tabor case, argued against the existence of any “ministerial exception” to employment rules. Obama tried to mandate that Catholic schools, hospitals and charities offer insurance coverage for contraceptives and abortifacients. His revised policy still asserts a federal power to declare some religious institutions secular in purpose, reducing them to second-rate status under the First Amendment.

On top of this, Obama ran a stridently pro-abortion reelection campaign, seeking culture-war advantage on an issue he seldom mentioned four years ago.

The Catholic hierarchy and more traditional Catholic laymen reacted as you’d expect. Bishops issued pastoral letters in defense of religious liberty. Conservative and pro-life groups organized in battleground states.

The result? According to the first cut of exit-poll analysis by the Pew Research Center, Obama’s support among white Catholics fell to 40 percent — seven points lower than four years ago. It was one of the largest swings of any portion of the electorate. John Green of the University of Akron argues that the religious liberty issue came to “encapsulate other concerns such as abortion and marriage” among many regular Mass attendees.

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Gerson: The flaw of an honorable man
| November 13, 2012 | 9:37 am | Michael Gerson | No comments

Published for The Washington Post, November 13, 2012

The Petraeus affair — like some Ethics 101 thought experiment — is an exceptionally difficult test case in determining the proper relationship between personal ethics and public trust. When should you forgive an indispensable leader a fatal flaw?

Retired Gen. David Petraeus has made a career of indispensability. He defined and implemented the counterinsurgency doctrines that brought about a decent outcome in Iraq — avoiding a setback at the heart of American interests that would have been more demoralizing than Vietnam. He left his imprint on a generation of officers who have emulated his strategic flexibility and intellectual rigor.

There is a reason Petraeus generally received good press, even from those skeptical of American military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. During briefings and discussions, he was supremely informed and often breathtakingly candid — an attribute that involves risks but establishes credibility. He possesses a comprehensive knowledge of leaders and events in the Middle East and Central Asia. His career had not only been successful; it demonstrated that America is capable of complex international responsibilities. Petraeus is a generator of national confidence.

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Gerson: Rebuilding the GOP’s appeal
| November 9, 2012 | 9:18 am | Michael Gerson | No comments

Published for The Washington Post, November 9, 2012

The 2012 election was a substantial victory not only for President Obama but also for liberalism. Obama built his campaign on abortion rights and higher taxes for the wealthy. He was rewarded by an electorate that was younger, more pro-choice and more racially diverse than in 2008. The Obama coalition is not a fluke; it is a force.

Some conservatives have reacted in the tradition of Cicero: “Oh, the times! Oh, the customs!”Rush Limbaugh concluded, “We’ve lost the country,” which he described as a “country of children.” “There is no hope,” Ann Coulter said. And Bill O’Reilly: “It’s not a traditional America anymore.”

As a matter of strategy, it is generally not a good idea to express disdain for an electorate one hopes to eventually influence. In this case, despair is also an overreaction. Conservatives have not witnessed the sacking of Rome. They have seen the disappointment of their expectation that the 2010 Republican wave election was an inexorable trend. They have seen politically unfavorable demographic changes — which everyone knew were coming sooner or later — come sooner. They have seen younger voters grow more libertarian on some social issues.

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Gerson: The trouble with Obama’s Silver lining
| November 6, 2012 | 4:46 pm | Michael Gerson | No comments

Published for The Washington Post, November 5, 2012

On the eve of the election, Nate Silver — baseball forecaster, online poker wiz, political handicapper — placed President Obama’s chances of returning to office at 86.3 percent. Not 86.1 percent. Not 87.8 percent. At 86.3 percent.

Silver’s prediction is not an innovation; it is trend taken to its absurd extreme. He is doing little morethan weighting and aggregating state polls and combining them with various historical assumptions to project a future outcome with exaggerated, attention-grabbing exactitude. His work is better summarized as an 86.3 percent confidence that the state polls are correct.

The statistical analysts of politics have all their bases covered. If the state polls are correct, the aggregator gets credit for his insight in trusting them. If the assumptions contained in those polls — on the partisan composition of the electorate or the behavior of independents — are wrong, it is the failure of pollsters, not of statisticians such as Silver. Note to recent college graduates: Strongly consider a profession in which one is right, by definition, 100 percent of the time. It beats poker.

The main problem with this approach to politics is not that it is pseudo-scientific but that it is trivial. An election is not a mathematical equation; it is a nation making a decision. People are weighing the priorities of their society and the quality of their leaders. Those views, at any given moment, can be roughly measured. But spreadsheets don’t add up to a political community. In a democracy, the convictions of the public ultimately depend on persuasion, which resists quantification.

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Gerson: The Democrats who predicted the 2012 campaign
| November 2, 2012 | 3:01 pm | Michael Gerson | No comments

Published for The Washington Post, November 1, 2012

In November 2011, former Democratic pollsters — and current gadflies — Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell made a much-discussed argument in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. The miserable state of the economy, they claimed, restricted the options for President Obama’s reelection strategy. He could still win. “But the kind of campaign required for the president’s political survival,” they said, “would make it almost impossible for him to govern — not only during the campaign, but throughout a second term. Put simply, it seems that the White House has concluded that if the president cannot run on his record, he will need to wage the most negative campaign in history to stand any chance.”

Schoen and Caddell added a bit of street theater to their political analysis: Obama should step aside to allow Hillary Clinton to run. The left heaped scorn. The argument was “bilge” and “fantasy.” Schoen and Caddell were “con artists” and “losers.”

Except that the 2012 presidential campaign has proceeded much as they predicted. Both parties’ campaigns have been largely conducted according to their theory.

The shape of the race was set in early summer. In April, May and June, job creation dipped well below 100,000 — some of the worst economic news since the worst days of the Great Recession. Public approval for Obama’s handling of the economy dropped. Political scientists often argue that public impressions about the state of the economy get locked in during the summer before a presidential election. In the doldrums of 2012, Americans determined they wanted economic change — though they were not yet convinced that Mitt Romney could deliver it.

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Gerson: Obama’s discrediting victory
| October 31, 2012 | 3:26 pm | Michael Gerson | No comments

Published by The Washington Post, October 30, 2012

If Barack Obama loses his bid for reelection, the main reason can be traced to one period of time and one choice.

In late 2009, the Democratic-controlled House and Senate had both passed health-reform legislation and were proceeding with reconciliation talks. But in January 2010, Democrats lost Ted Kennedy’s Massachusetts Senate seat — as well as their filibuster-proof Senate majority — in a protest against Obamacare. It was a remarkable revolt, in the bluest of states.

“If there isn’t any recognition that we got the message and we are trying to recalibrate and do things differently,” Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) said at the time, “we are not only going to risk looking ignorant but arrogant.” Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) predicted that if the Obama team pushed through a final health bill along party lines, Democrats would “lose their majority in Congress in November.” The concerns of some on the Obama team preceded the Massachusetts debacle. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had argued for a more incremental approach to health reform. “I begged him not to do this,” he later recalled.

The president went ahead, saying, “I feel lucky.” In March 2010, Obamacare was passed without a serious recalibration or a single Republican vote.

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Gerson: Relentlessly reassuring Romney
| October 23, 2012 | 1:47 pm | Michael Gerson | No comments

Published for The Washington Post, October 23

“The first requirement of a statesman is that he be dull,” said Dean Acheson.

During the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney was every bit the statesman. On foreign policy issues, he was well informed, earnest and gaffe-free. He refused to take the bait of hypothetical questions or Barack Obama’s continual attacks. “Well, of course I don’t concur with what the president said about my own record” was about as ferocious as it got. All evening, when Obama unleashed fireworks, Romney smothered them with a blanket.

We know from the second debate that Romney is pricklier than this. So his self-restraint was also evidence of a strategy. It amounted to a bold bet that boldness was not required. Romney set out to be relentlessly reassuring. Instead of pointing out contrasts, he systematically attended to his own credibility.

Romney often acted as if he were the only person on the stage — like a man trying to paint a self-portrait in the midst of a food fight. The image that emerged was a foreign policy moderate in tone and substance. Romney seemed a man who holds certain values but lacks disruptive projects and causes. He criticized Obama’s foreign policy mainly on implementation — pressure for Middle Eastern reform should have come earlier, Iranian sanctions should be tighter — rather than proposing an alternative grand strategy.

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Gerson: Liberalism’s shrinking agenda
| October 19, 2012 | 9:48 am | Michael Gerson | No comments

Published for The Washington Post, October 18, 2012

In its heyday — say, the 1960s — American liberalism had an obvious identity. It was ambitious, reformist and frankly moral in its appeal to a common good that included minorities and the poor. It was praised as idealistic and attacked as utopian. Robert Kennedy, quoting Aeschylus, set out “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

A few days after assuming the presidency, Lyndon Johnson was warned not to waste his energy on lost causes, however worthy. According to historian Robert Caro, Johnson responded: “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Head Start, Job Corps, Medicare, the Clean Air Act, the Wholesome Meat Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act and the Public Broadcasting Act followed. (Think of Johnson as the incubator of Big Bird.)

After four years of Barack Obama and two clarifying presidential debates, it is extraordinary how shrunken liberalism has become. During his much-praised town-hallperformance, the president set out a second-term agenda of stunning humility. Enumerating the reasons that the “future is bright,” Obama proposed tax incentives for domestic investment, trade promotion, greater investment in solar and wind power, road and bridge construction, broader job retraining in community colleges and higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy. He added pledges to defend Medicare and Planned Parenthood against barbarian assault.

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Gerson: Biden’s toxic victory
| October 16, 2012 | 3:40 pm | Michael Gerson | No comments

Published for The Washington Post, October 15, 2012

Normally, a debate “victory” doesn’t require quite so much damage control. Following Vice President Biden’s manic, careening ride through global politics last week, President Obama is left to make a variety of cleanups and clarifications.

On Libya, Biden managed to further muddle a muddled narrative. His claim that the administration had no knowledge of requests for added security in Benghazi requiredimmediate correction. He was “speaking about himself and the president,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. Which served to highlight the culpability of the State Department and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — while Clinton’s husband is stumping the country to salvage Obama’s reelection effort. Biden went on to blame “the intelligence community” for the administration’s multiday misinformation campaign — even though elements of the intelligence community apparently knew the truth within 24 hours of the attack. Biden raised more uncomfortable questions about the Libyan fiasco than weeks of congressional hearings could manage.

On Afghanistan, Biden described a policy of total and unconditional retreat that the Obama administration does not actually hold. “We are leaving in 2014, period,” said Biden. Responsible representatives of the administration put it a little differently: U.S. combat forces are leaving in 2014, but considerable special operations and training forces will remain to help prevent the Taliban from reestablishing a terrorocracy. Biden, in fact, was representing his own position in an internal White House debate — the abject-surrender option — rather than the administration’s stated view. During the debate, the other leader who must have been giggling was the Taliban’sMohammad Omar.

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