And it’s as awkward as you’d expect. Gerson bends over backwards to praise McCain against Obama, but McCain is as little representative of compassionate conservatism as anyone. Gerson’s strategy seems to hinge on the hope that McCain’s ideological aim is so random that he’d hit the Gersonian dartboard with all the frequency that accident affords. Or, to borrow another metaphor, even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes. Gerson’s ambition now appears to be hurling his nuts at McCain.
Presumably Obama, who is never conservative, is unable ever to zero in on compassionate conservatism? Atop other impressive one-liners, Gerson produces this classic: “Perhaps Obama is just conventionally liberal.” Well, duh. It’s stunning to see Gerson, of all people, confuse post-partisan politics with post-ideological politics, but he does it consistently with Obama. Obama never vowed to transcend Liberalism. He repeatedly vows instead to abandon permanently mobilized, rigid, say-anything, do-anything party warfare. It’s fanciful to insinuate as Gerson does that Obama voted against John Roberts because he’s a partisan hack.
And though Gerson is right to suggest that Obama needs to prove he can govern without turning Washington over to the circus freaks, a la Clinton 1992, he’s wrong that we can all breathe a sigh of relief if Obama reveals he can staff his administration with bipartisan hacks, a la Clinton 1996. Joe Lieberman has just what Gerson wants — a “strong, centrist ideological identity” — but this ideology, too, is toxic to conservatism — or conservatism as I, and probably you, understand it, at least. And that (as ever) is where Gerson goes wrong. What’s particularly embarrassing this time around is how stilted his praise must become for McCain, a candidate with an ideologically weak centrist identity.
Phil Klein and David Brooks are right to read Obama, by contrast, as a savvy liberal who thinks a little too highly of himself to really be a Party Man — sort of a new and improved Bill Clinton, less devoid of principle and more devoid of horniness. This is, relatively speaking, all to the good for conservatives and all to the not so good for Gersonians. A calculating and practical liberal administration will be much less of a torment for conservatives interested in clarifying and revitalizing their intellectual position than an administration driven by the passionate pursuit of the Democratic party platform. Obama has shown plain enough for anyone to see that he’s a liberal. Really there are only two dangers that Obama poses to conservatives — one, perhaps he can turn huge new numbers of Americans into liberals by sheer force of personality, and two, perhaps he can do the same by actually winning arguments with conservatives on the merits. One way Obama will not be able to do either of these things is by cementing his credentials as a party hack. He knows this. Does Gerson?