Alan Wolfe is a TNR contributing editor and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His latest book is The Future of Liberalism (Knopf, 2009).
A well-functioning liberal society requires a serious conservative presence. Writing in the September issue of Commentary, Peter Wehner and Michael Gerson, both serious people, propose things conservatives can do to make themselves more intellectually respectable. If I were a conservative, I would endorse the reforms they call for in education to promote responsibility, and in foreign policy to promote liberty. Unfortunately for them, the Republicans, the only party to call itself conservative, has as much chance of adopting their program as it does of building a majority in American politics anytime soon.
Wehner and Gerson, like David Brooks in today’s New York Times, subscribe to the theory that Obama has overreached by relying too much on government, thereby setting the stage for a Republican revival. But surely the question in American politics these days is not how big government is--Wehner and Gerson are in their own way big-government types--but how well it works. If Obama has a problem, and we cannot really be sure at this point that he does, it is because both his inherent moderation and his desire to please powerful interests prevent him from using government well--much, as it happens, like George W. Bush before him. Yet flawed as it is, health care reform could still wind up improving life for countless Americans and become an argument for how well government can work. Just ask all those seniors, many of whom may vote Republican, who oppose reform because they want to keep Medicare. Some day it is possible that all Americans, and not just seniors, will want to keep their benefits--and might even be better able to recognize who is actually providing them.
Although Wehner and Gerson take potshots at the religious right, nowhere in their article do the names Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh appear. These men are leading the current Republican insurgency for a reason. Their populistic outrage, and not the reasoned politics of opposition of those who actually believe in America’s promise, will influence who this party chooses for its next generation of leaders. There is every reason for Wehner and Gerson to be appalled at such a prospect, and I have to wonder why they did not take on these forces of malevolence more directly. The Republican Party, their party, is likely to be a nativist, anti-intellectual, small America, religiously zealous, and hate-filled movement for some time to come. One can read Wehner and Gerson’s article as a preview of their forthcoming political homelessness. Too conservative for the party of Obama and Pelosi but too thoughtful for the party of Grassley and DeMint, they have no place to go.
The real shame, though, lies on the liberal side. Had there been a real opposition party in America, one that actually believed not only in governing but in governing well, Obama’s bipartisan instincts might have produced better public policy. Instead we have Bill Kristol and “just say no.” Liberals are left to rely on only half the world--their half, to be sure, but half nonetheless. This really is a one-party country. Only one party believes that politics involves something more than screaming.