Back in the Reagan era, Republicans used to go on the warpath against the first sign of “moral equivalence.” This was the idea that the warts and imperfections of the United States were in any way comparable to those of the Soviet Empire. If Democrats like Mario Cuomo (the rhetorically-entrancing Barack Obama of his day) or Walter Mondale said that Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was too aggressive or his military buildup too costly, a Republican chorus would immediately spring up to say: There they go again! It’s “moral equivalence” to put any blame at all on the United States rather than focusing all criticism on Soviet tyranny.
I agree that the American idea is attractive and good. I agree that the Soviet empire was brutal and bad. But in practice “moral equivalence” was a way of trying to delegitimize any critical analysis, by Americans, of American policy. Sort of the same function as “we are a nation at war” or “that will only help the terrorists,” when those phrases had silencing power in the first two or three years after 9/11.
Now we have a breathtaking example of moral equivalence from an unlikely source. It’s Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for our current president Bush, lamenting in the Washington Post the abandonment by both political parties of the “centrist” tradition of Bill Clinton and G.W. Bush
I like Michael Gerson personally. We worked together a decade ago at U.S. News — a very different world, for both of us. (Not to be coy about it: I was the editor, and I was glad he came to work there.) In the fraternity of presidential speechwriters, he currently holds the “silk purse / sow’s ear” trophy, since he is so often credited with making the otherwise, umm, unexpressive Bush sound eloquent in major speeches. I say this despite disagreeing with most speeches Gerson has been associated with (excepting the masterful Joint Session address soon after the 9/11 attacks) — most of all, Bush’s reckless and sweeping “we’ll democratize everybody, whether they like it or not” second inaugural address.
But Gerson’s article in the Post is preposterous. So now he honors Clinton as a noble centrist? Great. And where was the reference to that centrism and nobility when Bush ran, with help from Gerson, against Clinton’s record and his vice president in 2000? Similarly Gerson laments the way Bush’s own “centrist” vision is now being thoughtlessly abandoned by current Republicans. It’s significant that Gerson’s example for this definition of “Bushism” is the “compassionate conservative” who ran in 2000, since almost nothing Bush has said or done since that time can be considered centrist or bipartisan in any way. (I say “almost” rather than “absolutely” because of the current immigration bill, which has annoyed Republicans more than Democrats.)
A natural path for people leaving an Administration is to angle for inclusion in the Council of Elders, the DC permanent-pundit class who spend the following decades wringing their hands about how much nastier and less public-spirited politics is than in the olden days. Politics is plenty nasty now. But is interesting, to put it mildly, to hear one of the Bush Administration’s main rhetoricians locate the lost golden age at 1992 and 2000. Sentences like this, from the Post column, are written as applications for the Council: “The abandonment of Bushism and Clintonism is also leaving many Americans ideologically homeless.” So is a title like this: “Two Parties Fleeing the Center.” Moral equivalence indeed! It would be convenient to think that Bush is a conciliator, whose ideal of harmony is sadly being ignored by the squabbling midgets of both parties who hope to succeed him. But donnez moi un break: you know, we’ve been reading the papers these last six and a half years.