The Great Temptation

Michael Gerson
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Posted: Oct 31, 2008 12:01 AM
The Great Temptation

WASHINGTON -- The great temptation -- or perhaps the job description -- of the commentator is overinterpretation. Events are fit neatly, or are forced roughly, into the narrative of our own desires.

So the pop of a credit bubble and a Wall Street panic become the fatal crisis of capitalism, calling for "drastic, frankly socialistic measures" -- for commentators who would support such measures bust or boom. "The crisis that kills capitalism," recalls economist Gary Becker, "has been said to happen during every major recession and financial crisis ever since Karl Marx."

The role of public authority in the regulation of markets is a matter of debate. The moral achievement of capitalism is not. It is the system of economic interaction that rewards human creativity and enterprise -- that produces social organization without coercion or oppression. And what are the alternatives? The comfortable decline delivered by democratic socialism? Feudalism? Anarcho-syndicalism?

We are also seeing the political version of this ideological overreach. Democrats seem headed for a broad victory. But seldom has a cause of such an outcome been more directly traceable to one event. In mid-September, John McCain was running about even with Barack Obama. Following a financial crisis identified with Wall Street, bankers and (somewhat unfairly) Republicans, McCain was several points behind.

But this obvious explanation has not stopped commentators from claiming the Republican slide as the vindication of other long-held beliefs.

For some, the presumed Democratic victory heralds a broad American embrace of liberalism. This would be more credible if the Obama campaign was not conspicuously devoid of ideas, liberal or otherwise. Obama's largest political success has consisted of avoiding charges of liberalism while possessing a conspicuously liberal voting record. On the evidence of his final appeal, Obama is a committed tax cutter. His political strategy has emphasized reassurance and stability, not ambition or innovation. This may be smart. It will hardly yield an ideological mandate.

For others, a Republican defeat should be interpreted as the final rejection of Sarah Palin -- "a religious fanatic and a proud, boastful ignoramus" -- along with all her theocratic ilk. This judgment is both rude and uniformed. Her mistakes during the campaign have reflected greenness, not religious mania. And her appeal is different from that of the traditional, Southern religious right. She is a distinctly Western package that includes small town morality, a libertarian emphasis on personal freedom (particularly the freedom to shoot things), and an anti-Eastern populism. And for all the rough edges of the regional idiom, it is impossible to imagine Republicans winning future national elections without a considerable crowd of Palin voters.

Still others are eager to translate a loss for McCain as a national rejection of conservatism. This would, of course, require McCain -- the author of campaign finance reform, the supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, the proposer of a cap-and-trade system -- to actually be a conservative symbol. Initially it was McCain's heresies, not his orthodoxies, which made him a plausible candidate.

Yet there is little doubt, given a likely (though not certain) McCain defeat, that the conservative movement would enter a period of intense soul-searching. The issues that have provided conservatives with victories in the past -- particularly welfare and crime -- have been rendered irrelevant by success. The issues of the moment -- income stagnation, climate disruption, massive demographic shifts, and health care access -- seem a strange, unexplored land for many in the movement. And McCain, though a past reformer, did little to reaffirm that reputation during his campaign.

After every Republican loss -- whatever the proximate cause -- it is worth recalling the words of Whittaker Chambers: "If the Republican Party cannot get some grip of the actual world we live in and from it generalize and actively promote a program that means something to masses of people -- why somebody else will. ... The Republican Party will become like one of those dark little shops which apparently never sell anything. If, for any reason, you go in, you find, at the back, an old man, fingering for his own pleasure, some oddments of cloth. ... Nobody wants to buy them, which is fine because the old man is not really interested in selling. He just likes to hold and to feel."

That remains the Republican choice: to offer a message for the masses, or to remain in business merely for its own ideological pleasure.