In addition to spending more time on the treadmill, one of my New Year's resolutions is to read more from the other side of the political spectrum. It's part of my personal program to move beyond a bumper sticker understanding of the political right. (Sadly, watching Fox News while on my treadmill won't do that. So much for two birds with one stone.)
I got off to a good start with an essay by Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner in the National Journal. Gerson was a speechwriter for Bush 43; Wehner was an advisor to Gov. Romney's presidential campaign.
Their essay is an erudite and insighful explanation of conservative principles.
Following an obligatory excoriation of the Obama administration as a "travesty" and a "federal power grab," they pause to catch their breath and ask, "what is the proper and appropriate extent and purpose of that government?"
To their credit, they distance themselves from the "rhetorical zeal and indiscipline" of some conservatives "in which virtually every reference to government is negative, disparaging, and denigrating." They agree with the Tea Party view that we should return to the founders' ideals of government, but they disagree that Madison and company viewed the central government as "an evil, or even as a necessary evil."
"The Constitution did not simply create limits on government, as some of today's conservative rhetoric seems to imply; it created a strong if bounded central government," they write. "It is important to speak up when those boundaries are breached, but it is important, too, to remember the aims of that government."
They then describe those aims in broader terms than I would have imagined, with specific reference to the writings of Madison, Hamilton, and Lincoln.
In the process, they identify America's main political battlefield as "the space between the individual and the state" where "the family, civil society, and local community" have historically operated.
Those institutions have traditionally been responsible for our citizens' moral formation. And they believe most of our current disagreements boil down to a disagreement about the state's role in the formation of the people's moral character. The loudest voices on the right believe the federal government has no role; those on the left believe it has an unfettered role.
Gerson and Wehner believe the state has a limited role in people's moral formation, though they caution modest expectations.
They even go as far as to declare, "Government holds some responsibility for creating the ground for that equality of opportunity, which is not a natural condition." Indeed, they describe our current condition in terms that sound downright leftish:
"... equal opportunity itself, a central principle of our national self-understanding, is becoming harder to achieve. It is a well-documented fact that, in recent years, economic mobility has stalled for many poorer Americans, resulting in persistent intergenerational inequality. This phenomenon is more complex than an income gap. It involves wide disparities in parental time and investment, in religious and community involvement, and in academic accomplishment. These are traceable to a number of factors, including the collapse of working-class families, the flight of blue-collar jobs, and the decay of neighborhoods that once offered stronger networks of mentorship outside the home."
So are they lefties in disguise? Hardly. If they sound reasonable, it may be because they are.
Here's what they have to say about the role of government:
"American citizenship has evolved around the exercise of liberty in a complex, mutually dependent web of institutions. One of those institutions is and must be government — effective, respected, and limited.
"The purpose of the state is to keep society safe and strong; to protect us from outsiders and from each other; to maximize freedom in a way that is consistent with security and order and that advances the common good; to provide society's 'mediating institutions' the space they need to thrive; to encourage equal opportunity for all citizens; and to make a decent provision for the poorest and most vulnerable. All of this is meant to allow people to flourish and to advance human happiness."
It seems to me there's plenty of room for reasonable people to agree in words such as those.