Gerson doesn't want a massive new federal effort to combat social injustice; he wants a modest effort, but one imbued with an awesome new sense of moral purpose. It's Tommy Thompson's ideology wrapped in RFK's rhetoric. One can question whether this is really a unique political philosophy meriting a big book deal, but Great Society liberalism it ain't. To me--and I mean this in a good way--it seems more or less like run-of-the-mill centrism; he probably could have just joined the Republican Main Street Partnership or the DLC and been done with it, though that wouldn't have earned him very much money.
So what exactly is the difference between a small-bore government program with a modest budget that gets implemented because people kinda sorta think it might do some good and exactly the same program "imbued with an awesome new sense of moral purpose"? Does the grandiose rhetoric have any independent value?
I think that the reason for the conservative reaction to Gerson has a lot of roots. To start with, small government types are often tarred from the left with the "you don't care about the poor" brush. Most of the time, it's a stupid, irrelevant distraction from the real policy question about whether big government programs actually achieve their stated goal, but it is a quite common rhetorical strategy. To have that idiotic leftist mantra repeated verbatim by one who is supposed to be one of our own is infuriating.
Further, when Gersonian rhetoric is accepted by folks who are supposed to be conservative, it leaves fiscal conservatives and libertarians rhetorically disarmed when somebody comes along and employs the grandiose rhetoric in support of grandiose programs. Gerson and his ilk may not support massive big-government programs (although I am unconvinced that they don't), but they redefine the terms of the debate in a manner favorable to statist big-government liberalism.
There's also something else going on as well, I think. Quite a few conservatives and libertarian-leaners who have tended to vote Republican have already broken with George W. Bush. And yet, quite a few conservatives still have some residual loyalty to President George W. Bush and the Republican Party. Let's face it: Gerson's philosophy isn't that far from that of is former boss. Attacking Gersonism is a way of attacking Bushism without going after Bush.
I've already recommended Matt Kibbe's review of Gerson's book, and again, it is well worth reading in full. Kibbe thinks that Gerson is being stupid when tries to read small government types out of the movement:
It’s true that there has always been some tension on the Right between traditionalists and small-government proponents, but the coalition has also been conservatism’s greatest strength. By arguing that one must pick one or the other, Gerson is indicating a willingness to hack off a huge chunk of the conservative coalition — all the while claiming that this is the way to save it.
True. But isn't that equally true of Bush? Sure, Bush managed to win two terms in the Oval Office for himself, but he's managed to burn down the house Reagan built.
Consider the following passage, from a post by left-leaning blogger Publius at Obsidian Wings:
But 2008 is a new world. The modern conservative movement is both intellectually and practically exhausted. It’s still a powerful force, but the fires ain’t burnin’ like they were 20 years ago. There’s a window here to shift the course of the river – to enact not only a stable progressive majority, but to chart a lasting progressive course on the big issues of our day (health care, climate change, foreign policy).
Can you even imagine a paragraph like that being written tweny years ago? And why is the conservative movement in such shambles? Well, the reason is pretty obvious: the rise of "compassionate conervatism" and the presidency of George W. Bush, along with the Gersonian rhetoric Bush has embraced.
Which makes it all the more ironic that Gerson couches so many of his arguments in terms of what Republicans need to do to wine. Because Gersonism -- or Bushism -- is a sure fire way to get that "stable progressive majority" that Publius yearns for.
UPDATE: Minor editing glitch fixed.