Compassionate Conservatism: A Primer

Tuesday, March 1, 2011
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Barbara Kelley
Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a multi-essay series by the author on compassionate conservatism.

What was "compassionate conservatism"? It was the signature project of the George W. Bush Administration that wasn’t—one firmly focused on domestic affairs and the bipartisan reform of the welfare state. It was that administration minus the poisonous partisanship fueled by the contested outcome of the 2000 presidential election, minus the 9/11 attacks and the ensuing preoccupation with national defense and security, minus the Iraq war and the ever deepening partisan divide, minus an ongoing fiscal crisis that was death to discretionary social spending.

In short, compassionate conservatism was the Defining Idea of a president to whom history permitted even less than most the leeway to implement one. Was it ever a viable idea? Does it remain one today?

Compassionate Conservatism’s history
Illustration by Barbara Kelley

Bush’s promotion of compassionate conservatism may have struck you as incongruous. If so, you weren’t the only one. Everyone knows that not conservatives but liberals are the party of compassion, and have been at least since the New Deal. For conservatives to play the compassion card – wasn’t that mere capitulation to liberals?

That wasn’t how Bush and his advisers saw it. He invoked compassion in 2000 both to distinguish himself from his Republican rivals and then to outflank his Democratic opponent. He grasped clearly, as not all Republicans did, that in a democracy even the party of tradition has to offer voters something new. And confronting an opposition that claims to care deeply about people, your stance can’t just be that you don’t. Whatever else its implications, compassionate conservatism suggested conservatism with a human face.

A skeptic might have dismissed this as an exercise in political rebranding. Yet Bush’s commitment to compassionate conservatism wasn’t just rhetorical. The notion had first captured his attention as governor of Texas. He had introduced its principles into the administration of state affairs, he had summoned its champions to meetings, he had written a preface to one of their books. As he campaigned for president he spoke movingly of mobilizing the "armies of compassion."

The term "compassionate conservatism" was the invention not of a conservative but of Vernon Jordan, an African-American leader of impeccable Democratic and liberal credentials..

Bush offered not just generalities but a substantial Federal financial commitment. He promised a Compassion Capital Fund. The fund would assist small grass roots agencies, many but not all of them faith-based, few of which had previously qualified for federal support. The initiative in treating social problems would shift to the neighborhoods most affected by them, and to agencies ministering to the needy that had arisen from among them. No longer the passive objects of top-down federal programs that perpetuated their status as government clients, the poor would be helped to help themselves. Emerging from dependency, they would assume their places as equal (because economically self-reliant) citizens. Welfare spending would shrink, as would the taxes that supported it. What a joke on Marx: not the state as such, but the hypertrophic post-New Deal welfare state would wither away—leaving behind it a freer people and a sleek new disencumbered free market economy.

It was a beautiful dream, but not one hatched exclusively by dreamers. In the rest of today’s discussion we’ll consider the political background of this notion, inside and outside the Republican Party. Next time we’ll consider its intellectual background, and in a following installment, its political fate in the turbulent years of the Bush Administration.

Compassionate conservatism: the term and the thing

Why was compassionate conservatism so attractive as a slogan, and why did it prove so doubtful as a project? To answer these questions we’ll have to begin by retreating a decade or two, to the coinage of the term. It was the invention not of a conservative but of Vernon Jordan, an African-American leader of impeccable Democratic and liberal credentials. He struck it in 1981 to chide conservatives for lacking it. During the eighties the expression languished, surfacing only occasionally and failing to acquire a clear meaning. Republicans who brandished it tended to be of the party’s liberal wing, already in steep decline in this era of Ronald Reagan’s predominance. (California Congressman Pete McCloskey, for example, attached it to a program stressing tolerance of homosexuality.) On the party’s right wing, the similar but duller term "conservative compassion" began to be heard. It implied an approach to welfare policy different from that of liberals, but sharing their engagement with the problems of the poor. Jack Kemp, not a liberal Republican but one who preached helping the poor by fostering a rising economic tide for all, called himself a "bleeding heart conservative." Mercifully, this term found no further takers.

President Reagan himself encouraged this new drift of the Republican Party softward but not leftward. Succeeding the cold, hectoring Jimmy Carter, Reagan was the warmest president since FDR—as well as the first Republican who dared don his mantle. All democratic politicians profess concern for the common man, but neither Eisenhower nor Nixon had succeeded in conveying much sympathy for him. Reagan did, and Democrats seethed helplessly as his invincible amiability blunted opposition to his policies.

What then of Reagan’s heir apparent, George H.W. Bush? A patrician, he was uneasy with the increasingly populist tone of American politics. Was it to offset his lack of Reagan’s personal warmth that he waged his first campaign on the slogan "a kinder, gentler society"?

As for the Republican Party, it still harbored conservatives of a harder, drier sort. Bush owed his credit with them not to intimations of his kindliness but to his simultaneous pledge not to raise taxes. What they liked best about his new more caring society was its lighting system: Bush’s famous "thousand points of light." Implying spontaneity and decentralization, the phrase privileged private philanthropy. While celebrating beneficence, Bush evidently agreed with most conservatives that it was not a task for the federal government. No major initiatives of publicly funded generosity emerged from his presidency.

Was compassionate conservatism ever a viable idea? Does it remain one today?

But if the senior Bush did not introduce new programs of federal largesse, neither did he succeed in trimming many old ones. Forced to humor a Democratic Congress in a time of recession, he lost his standing with conservatives by acquiescing to tax increases after all.

As for Bush’s popularity with the broader public, it too he owed less to his kind heart than to a display of his firmness, namely his staunch response to the Persian Gulf crisis of 1990-91. What proved his undoing was his supposed insensitivity to the pain of the recession that followed. He met his Waterloo at a supermarket checkout counter, felled by his wonder at the (no longer so very) new technology of barcode scanning.

That a president was too busy to do his own shopping, and had been so for some years now, should have scandalized no one. Unfortunately for Bush, however, this mishap sealed his reputation for aloofness. Having estranged conservatives while failing to endear himself to independents, he was vulnerable to the challenge of H. Ross Perot, and so fell in 1992 to Bill Clinton.

By the time George W. Bush made his presidential run, the phrase "compassionate conservatism" had come into general use. It proved an effective slogan. Bush was running to succeed Clinton, whose capacity to feel our pain was unrivaled, but whose sexual escapades had tarnished his abundant physicality. Bush’s opponent, Al Gore, by contrast, was a man of unquestioned probity. When pricked, however, he bled policy studies. If Bush’s impeccable family life contrasted with Clinton’s sleaziness, the warmth of his commitment to compassion played well against Gore’s dourness.

It also helped that having lost Congress to the Republicans in the 1994 midterm elections, the Clinton administration had charted a conciliatory course in social policy. This had anticipated in crucial respects that now urged by Bush. Clinton had signed the 1996 welfare reform act as well as several "Charitable Choice" bills. These last sought to remove administrative obstacles to the full participation of faith based organizations in the provision of social services. They enjoyed strong bipartisan support. While some on the left of the Democratic party remained wary of them, the party’s Establishment did not. President and Mrs. Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, Senator Edward Kennedy, and Senator Joseph Lieberman were just a few of the Democratic stalwarts who rallied behind charitable choice. As compassion was ceasing to be a monopoly of liberals, enthusiasm for mobilizing religion was not restricted to conservatives.

"Charitable Choice" reflected the bipartisanship of the Middle Clinton Era (1995-97). Here it resembled the welfare reform act of 1996, to which it was closely related. It addressed the question of how to fill the void left by the retrenchment of the welfare state. It anticipated compassionate conservatism by assigning much of this burden to faith-based grassroots organizations arising from the bosom of the poor themselves.

Ever since Alexis de Tocqueville, observers have noted the predominant role in American life of voluntary associations of every kind. These had of course included churches and other "faith-based" organizations, and had throughout the course of American history multiplied among the poor as they had among the middle class. Look at any American city, large or small, and you’ll find a rich tapestry of associations, many of them devoted to the moral and economic betterment of their members and of the broader community. This was true of black Americans as well as white ones; in every black community, dozens of churches and the storefront agencies often affiliated with those churches combated the terrible problems of poverty and demoralization.

For the whole of the history of the welfare state, however, such small, homespun, local (and often faith-based) organizations had flown beneath its radar, unrecognized (and unsubsidized) by it. For decades the federal government had pursued a strategy that political scientists have dubbed "government by proxy," disbursing its largesse via countless other agencies both public (notably state governments) and private. These last had included large mainstream religious organizations devoted to social betterment (e.g. Catholic Charities). Charitable Choice aimed to dismantle the barriers to smaller, merely local organizations getting their share of the federally funded action.

Thus had the Clinton Administration opened the way for further possible reforms. Yet having signed the Charitable Choice legislation into law, Clinton did little to revise the welter of administrative regulations that obstructed its becoming a reality. On Inauguration Day 2001, therefore, further substantive change depended on the depth of George W. Bush’s commitment to it. The evidence suggested that this was indeed his first priority. He was no Johnny-come-lately to it: as FDR had conceived the New Deal during his years at the Statehouse in Albany, Bush, as we have seen, had nursed his own social schemes during his two terms as governor in Austin. When he pledged to unleash the "armies of compassion," he meant it, and he entered the White House with concrete plans and cadres devoted to their realization.

Yet why did he mean it, and just what did he mean by it? To answer these questions we have to turn, as Bush himself so often did, to books. Bush was a reader, and his notion of compassionate conservatism was very much the product of his reading. It offers in fact a remarkable example of the influence of intellectuals and their ideas on politics. We’ll explore this further in our next installment.