Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- It is my intention to celebrate a legislative and moral victory -- the reauthorization and expansion of America's massive effort to fight global AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria -- with an apology.

Two months ago, I made a rather vivid attack on a group of United States senators I called "the Coburn Seven," who were blocking consideration of this measure. I was convinced that Tom Coburn -- known in the Senate as "Dr. No" for objecting to nearly all spending increases -- intended to kill the bill.

Then I made the worst mistake of the commentator: actually meeting the object of your scorn. I found, as usual, that disdain is easier from a distance. Though we remained at odds on some issues, Coburn politely assured me that his motivation was not stinginess. His main goal was to increase the number of people receiving treatment.

So let the record show: After a compromise that accommodated his concerns, Coburn not only supported the bill but urged other conservatives to do the same.

The bipartisan expansion of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) -- along with the President's Malaria Initiative -- is significant in a number of ways:

First, it represents the congressional affirmation of a major legacy of George W. Bush -- a grand, aggressive international compassion that dwarfs the Peace Corps and is unequaled since the Marshall Plan. Despite charges of simplistic militarism, the Bush Doctrine actually includes three

elements: the pre-emption of emerging threats, the encouragement of responsible self-government, and the promotion of development and health as alternatives to despair and bitterness.

In service of this third goal, Bush has more than quadrupled aid to sub-Saharan Africa. Americans are only dimly aware of this fact. Men and women in the remotest African villages are better informed. Historians will find it undeniable.

Second, the passage of the PEPFAR expansion displayed the reviled Democratic Congress at its best. When I asked one administration official to identify some heroes in this legislative fight, he responded: "Joe Biden." "Biden was unbelievably professional," he said, "patient with the hysterics of other senators and always looking for compromise." Along with Howard Berman in the House, Biden achieved a bipartisan agreement during an election year, in a branch of government overwhelmed by cynicism and bitterness. This is the way government is supposed to work.

Third, this legislation served to isolate and discredit that element of American politics which refines hatred of government to a toxic purity.

Sens. Coburn and Richard Burr eventually accepted a reasonable compromise.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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