Just over four years ago, after George W. Bush was reelected by the smallest margin for an incumbent since Woodrow Wilson held off Charles Evans Hughes in 1916, a palpable sense somehow took hold in much of the media that Karl Rove’s concept of a “permanent Republican majority” had been realized.
In this climate, it was only sensible that newspaper editors and television producers would go out of their way to make sure that the prominent architects, adherents, and enablers of the Bush/Rove governing philosophy were represented on op-ed pages, in news reports and on opinion-shaping discussion shows. Theirs was the dominant political philosophy, and one that wouldn’t be fading anytime soon. Best for their voices to be heard.
Of course, the folly of the “permanent majority” forecast, which should have been fairly clear even in the immediate aftermath of Mr. Bush’s reelection, became evident less than a year after the ’04 vote, when rising violence in Iraq and the horrors of Hurricane Katrina sent support for the president and his party plummeting. Two straight electoral blood-lettings for the G.O.P. followed, and now Democrats dominate Washington like they haven’t in decades.
And yet, months after Mr. Bush took his Madoff-level popularity and exited the White House, his loyalists are still routinely called upon by influential media to represent the “conservative” perspective—bestowing unwarranted legitimacy on them and guaranteeing an unsatisfying experience for viewers who might be interested in hearing an intelligent conservative perspective, not a mindless rehash of the slogans Mr. Bush spouted to increasingly ill effect over eight years.
This unfortunate phenomenon reared its head over the weekend on Meet the Press, which convened a discussion with three essentially nonpartisan journalists and two men with more clearly defined ideological views. From the left, there was William Rodgers, once the chief economist for Bill Clinton’s Labor Department. And from the right, there was Michael Gerson, the former Bush speechwriter who is credited with coining the phrase “axis of evil” and coming up with perhaps the single most important line to sell the Iraq war—that “the first sign of a smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud.”
If you missed the show, you’ll be happy to know that Mr. Gerson, who regularly provides “conservative” perspective for The Washington Post’s op-ed page, is still at it. His most significant contribution to the panel came when he complained about the new administration’s decision to stop using the “war on terror” phraseology in which Mr. Gerson so eagerly trafficked.
“We’ve pursued a strategy against Al Qaeda that assumed we were at war that’s been fairly successful since 9/11,” the ex-speechwriter said. “And so calling something an overseas contingency operation, which really sounds like you’re looking for lost luggage, doesn’t necessarily, you know, move this debate forward.”
Maybe this would have passed for “balance” back in, say, 2005, but exactly whom does Mr. Gerson represent anymore? Iraq, at least in theory, destroyed his credibility with the general public. And while conservatives generally remained loyal to Mr. Bush while he was president, the ever-increasing denunciations of his policies from the right since he left office have made clear that the Bush philosophy—unilateral interventionism overseas with little regard for the G.O.P.’s traditional emphasis on small government—was never really representative of his party’s grass roots; they simply stuck with him because he was their president and the Democrats hated him.
Nor is Mr. Gerson the only conservative to emerge, after hitching his wagon to the Bush administration’s star, as a supposed representative of current conservative thought.
Turn on CNN and chances are you won’t have to wait long to see the face of Stephen Hayes, who distinguished himself earlier this decade for his insistence, long after it was clear that the opposite was true, that “there can no longer be any serious argument about whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq worked with Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda to plot against Americans.” He also penned a fawning biography of Dick Cheney.
Or pick up The Washington Post, the same paper that gave Mr. Gerson his post-Bush home, and you’ll find a regular op-ed column from William Kristol, the tireless Iraq war champion whose offerings, worse than being wrong, are usually unreadable; Or there’s Ron Christie, a little-known Bush and Cheney aide who has somehow become one of the cable networks’ go-to guys for the conservative viewpoint—which he unfailingly expresses with the language his old bosses favored when they were in power.
All of these people, of course, are entitled to their views. But, besides outdated and discredited bluster, they add nothing to the current discussion. And there are plenty of intelligent conservatives out there who aren’t interested in just defending the last administration (and, by extension, themselves) and who offer fresh, thought-provoking and often unpredictable perspectives.
A good example is Ross Douthat, who’s been writing for The Atlantic. His instincts are conservative, but he is far more loyal to critical thinking than partisan rhetoric—something he demonstrated in an appearance on Hardball in 2007, when he unexpectedly confronted Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn, who was mouthing a series of meaningless platitudes about Fred Thompson.
When Mr. Kristol’s one-year Op-Ed contract with The New York Times ended earlier this year, the paper chose as his successor Mr. Douthat. That’s the kind of upgrade that other media outlets would do well to emulate.
UPDATE: For more information on the question of who coined “Axis of Evil,” see here.