Michael Gerson Doesn't Understand the Tea Party

The characterization of taxation as an impingement on property rights is hardly new.

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Michael Gerson’s Washington Post column Thursday is an unmitigated mess.

His first mistake is to take the rhetoric of the Tea Party—whose influence he associates with a strand of “Rejectionist” conservatism—at face value. He writes:

There are libertarians who view federal taxation, except to fund a few night-watchman roles, as theft. There are tea party activists who believe that any federal power must be specifically enumerated in the Constitution—and then interpret the Constitution as if it were the Articles of Confederation. And then there is Ron Paul, who seeks to overturn the Lincoln and Hamilton revolutions.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

Someone hit the Family Feud wrong-answer buzzer. Such rhetoric is well within the mainstream of the conservative movement, and has been for decades. You might not hear the average GOP congressman come out and declare that “taxation is theft,” as Rep. Ron Paul or Judge Andrew Napolitano do, but the characterization of taxation as an impingement on property rights is hardly new. As Barry Goldwater wrote in The Conscience of a Conservative: “Property and freedom are inseparable: to the extent government takes the one in the form of taxes, it intrudes on the other.”

In the above passage, Gerson pooh-poohs the doctrine of strict constructionism and defends the “Lincoln and Hamilton revolutions.” I’m assuming Gerson means that the rejectionist right generally chafes at the notion of federal supremacy and disapproves of Hamiltonian means of promoting industry. Again, I would argue such views are well within the mainstream of today’s right. When President Obama talks like a Hamiltonian, he is routinely called a “corporatist” or “crony-capitalist.”

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Instead of—shudder!—entertaining the possibility that he might just be a socially conservative Democrat, Gerson invents a conflict between these rejectionist bogeymen and a supposedly more enlightened wing of the movement he calls the Reformers. These include Rep. Paul Ryan and writers such as Yuval Levin, James Capretta, and Peter Wehner. The agenda of this newfangled “reform movement,” Gerson writes, has three main planks:

First, it asserts that America’s massive fiscal crisis is a result of public-sector inefficiency. So it looks for ways to achieve the ends of the welfare state both through more private means and more efficient public means.

Second, it asserts that America’s economic challenge is also a function of public-sector inefficiency and seeks above all to encourage growth—by streamlining the tax code, reducing burdens on competitiveness and showing confidence in market mechanisms and consumer pressure.

Third, Reform Conservatism argues that America’s social problem is largely a function of the collapse of social capital among the poor and seeks to transform the safety net—encouraging responsibility and providing training toward integration in the broader stream of American life.

As I read this, I rub my eyes and scratch my head. I search for anything that’s even remotely novel. Click on this link and, if you’re a conservative, treat yourself to a pleasantly heady recollection of the first 100 days of the Republican-led House of Representatives in 1995. With the exception of term limits, is there a single item on that legislative slate—with its Fiscal Responsibility Act, Personal Responsibility Act, Family Reinforcement Act, American Dream Restoration Act, and Job Creation and Wage Enhancement Act—that would be out of place on the agenda of Gerson’s reformers?

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican party.]

The source of Gerson’s misapprehension is this: His rejectionists are not in ideological conflict with his reformers. They are ultimately one and the same. The Tea Party came into existence because the antecedents of today’s reformers got stomped at the ballot box. There had to be an explanation for this that did not involve any admission of error or misjudgment whatsoever. The explanation that the rejectionists eventually contrived was that the Republican “establishment” betrayed the ideals of the old reform movement. And so they staged a giant temper tantrum.

It’s a shame for Gerson that America’s binary party system doesn’t have room for something along the lines of Europe’s Christian Democrats. He and former Gov. Mike Huckabee would feel right at home in such a party.

For better or worse, we have just two parties—and Gerson has very painfully shoehorned himself into one of them.