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George Bush’s "compassionate conservative" brand
Posted by: McQ on Thursday, March 16, 2006

In an email exchange with a commenter I've been discussing my opinion that George Bush is indeed governing according to his principles and his principles include big government, spending and social programs. I also have contended that's not the way he ran, and that is why so many people are disappointed (I didn't understand "compassionate conservatism" to mean what it certainly has come to mean in terms of spending and big government)

Synchronicity. Peggy Noonan was having the same sort of conversation with herself.
The question has been on my mind since the summer of 2005 when, at a gathering of conservatives, the question of Mr. Bush and big spending was raised. I'd recently written on the subject and thought it significant that no one disagreed with my criticism. Everyone murmured about new programs, new costs, how the president "spends like a drunken sailor except the sailor spends his own money." And then someone, a smart young journalist, said, (I paraphrase), But we always knew what Bush was. He told us when he ran as a compassionate conservative. This left me rubbing my brow in confusion. Is that what Mr. Bush meant by compassionate conservatism?

That's not what I understood him to mean. If I'd thought he was a big-spending Rockefeller Republican—that is, if I'd thought he was a man who could not imagine and had never absorbed the damage big spending does—I wouldn't have voted for him.

I understood Mr. Bush to be saying, when he first came on the national scene, that he was the kind of conservative who cared very personally about the poor and struggling, who would take actions aimed at helping them, and that those actions would include promoting policies aimed at keeping the economy healthy and capable of pumping out jobs. I also understood Mr. Bush to be saying—and he often said it—that he meant to allow and encourage faith-based programs that helped young men who were getting in trouble with, or at risk of getting in trouble with, the law. It was clear by at least the 1990s that local programs run and staffed by the religious and their organizations had a higher rate of success than did programs that excluded religion. Under Mr. Bush, the feds would no longer funnel money exclusively into nonsectarian programs. The inner-city pastor would now be able to get a portion.

I didn't understand Mr. Bush's grand passion to be cutting spending. He didn't present himself that way. But he did present himself as a conservative, with all that entails and suggests. And as all but children know, conservatism is hostile, for reasons ranging from the abstract and philosophical to the concrete and practical, to high spending and high taxing. Money is power, more money for the government is more power for the government. More power for the government will allow it to, among many other things, amuse itself by putting its fingers in a million pies, and stop performing its essential functions well, and get dizzily distracted by nonessentials, and muck up everything. Which is more or less where we are.
The highlighted portion is precisely how I remember him running and I pointed this out to the emailer. Perhaps I read more into it that I should. Perhaps I should have understood that "compassionate conservative" was an oxymoron. Perhaps I should have realized that it spoke to big government, welfare programs, and massive spending. But then I never understood why those who believed in fiscal restraint, small government and less spending couldn't be compassionate as well.

Maybe that was the point of the brand. It certainly wasn't what Noonan expected, and, obviously, it wasn't what I expected either. And, unfortunately, we're all the poorer for it.
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Previous Comments to this Post 

From Noonan:
He didn’t present himself that way. But he did present himself as a conservative, with all that entails and suggests.
Key word, "suggests." "Conservative", in politics is a plastic term, unlike in Political PHILOSOPHY [where you’d see more references to Burke or Oakeshott (sp.)]. Pat Buchanan is a "conservative", Bill Kristol is a "conservative", Jerry Falwell is a "conservative", and to the NYT and the Kos the Cato Institute is "conservative."

I think a case can be made, with the Cato Institute as an outlier, that all these groups and individuals ARE conservative. And yes I know this isn’t too profound, but to be CONSERVATIVE has a number of meanings and the movement has a number of schools of thought.

Yes, Bush IS a conservative, he’s just not a CATO conservative or a James K. Glassman conservative or a QandO conservative. What he IS is a politician, building a coalition that was centre-right, which meant some ambiguity and compromise and a CHRISTIAN fellow, as you guys have posited a Christian Democrat.

And it was NOT to be totally unexpected, Limbaugh questioned the use of the phrase "Compassionate Conservative", arguing that Conservatives ARE compassionate and the implication of the phrase was that they weren’t. So there was unease from the get-go.

HOWEVER, QandO-ites, those that voted for Bush in ’00 and ’04, compare your alternatives... Gore/Kerry or Badnarik/Badnarik(?). Would you have reasonably voted for any of those four, KNOWING WHAT YOU KNOW NOW? Are you saying that you’d have voted for Gore or Kerry or Badnarik (throwing your vote away) rather than vote for Bush ’43? You’re saying that you’d rather have had Gore as President on 9/11 and you’d rather have had Gore’s tax policies? You’d really rather have had John Kerry and his multifarious "Better" plans than Bush’s? Or you’d rather have voted for "purity" and voted LP, even though the LP is a lost cause and captured fewer votes than the Greens or the CPUSA? In short, being right is more important than being in power? Is that really what you’re saying?

You got used, a little yes, BUT what were your options? And that’s been the thrust of my laments/complaints for the last day or so. You guys seem to want PERFECTION or at least of score of 90% on the QandO "purity test" for voting for someone. The reality is, that anyone you guys would LOVE, will lose. The choice is not between some BETTER Dubya or candidate of your dreams, but between Dubya and Gore or Dubya and Kerry. NOW, are you HONESTLY going to tell me you made a mistake in voting for George Bush, in light of the REAL options?

As to his "Conservatism" I’d say he IS one, just not MY type of conservative, but I’d take Dubya’s conservatism, for all its faults and my complaints-two differeing things-to the philosophy of the Democratic Party. So I voted for Bush 43 TWICE.

If you did too, well I really think that you’re trying to judge today by a set of ideal criteria that did not then apply. Kind of like saying, as some do, Lincoln was a racist, because he was disparaging of Negroes. By today’s standards he is/was but by HIS standards and by any objective standard, a man that fought to free slaves really can NOT be thought of as a racist. You can’t say that Lincoln ought to have freed the slaves AND passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964... similarly I can’t see how you can complain about your choice, because that seems to be the REAL thrust of the complaint, today without reference to what your choices were THEN. And in that light I think a vote for George W. Bush was and IS the right choice.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Bush has concocted an ambiguous reputation for himself, and I think it serves his legacy.

His legacy has grown an impregnable hide.

America’s progressives cannot criticize him rationally for slashing spending and starving "those less fortunate." And, as Joe intimates above, the fact that the Democrats reflexively nominate Euro-centric, socialist-pacifist candidates whose resolve to defend our republic militarily rings hollow, Conservatives, nationalists and capitalistic Libertarians have no choice but to nod and get on Bush’s bus.

I’m actually tolerant of our current budget deficit because Bush prepared me for its growth. I recall Bush’s first inaugural address, where he listed the calamities that would force the nation to bust its budget. These were (going from memory) economic recession/depression, war, or a natural disaster. I agreed with his list then, and, since all three conditions have surfaced at some time in the last 6-years, and, except for the Medicare prescription drug bill, the deficit spending seems to be defense-, econo-, or Katrina-related, I am allowing myself to sypathize with the CBO’s red-ink.

For now.
Written By: Steve
URL: http://
I really think people weren’t listening closely enough to what he was saying, or what he has been saying.
Compassionate conservatism is a political philosophy that was invented by Marvin Olasky, who went on to memorialize it in his 2000 book Compassionate Conservatism: What it is, What it Does, and How it Can Transform America, and Myron Magnet of the Manhattan Institute. Olasky has been called the "godfather of compassionate conservatism". The phrase was ironically popularized when George W. Bush adopted it as one of his key slogans during his 2000 presidential campaign against Al Gore.

According to its proponents, a compassionate conservative is someone who believes that conservatism and compassion go together and complement each other. This is opposed to the traditional criticism that conservatives tend to be harsh. A compassionate conservative sees the social problems of the United States, such as healthcare, immigration, the environment, etc., as being issues for which conservatives can find better solutions than the failed programs of liberals and the War on Poverty. Compassionate conservative philosophy argues for encouragement policies in support of traditional families; welfare reform to promote individual responsibilization, including workfare; active policing; standards-based schools, and helping poor countries around the world.
The truest kind of compassion doesn’t only come from more government spending, but from helping citizens build lives of their own. The aim of this philosophy is not to spend less money, or to spend more money, but to spend only on what works.

Joe - nobody here expects "perfection", what they do want is consistancy, and "truth in advertising."
Written By: Keith, Indy
URL: http://
Keith, "Truth in Advertising" Laws DO NOT apply to politicians...*LOL* And it still stands, would you vote for Gore in 200 or Kerry in ’04 instead of Bush even though he was "honest" about his policies? "No sir, no prescription drug plan for me, I’m voting for Al Gore...." If the domestic agenda is the agenda that counts for you, then mayhap a vote for Gore would have been preferable, although it assumes that Gore would have gotten NONE of his proposals thru Congress, a very large assumption.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
Just because Bush was the lesser of several evils, doesn’t mean that he wasn’t still evil and deserving of the criticism. (Not evil in the ChimpyMcHitler sense, but evil in the sense of continuing the preceding metaphor)
Written By: Jody
Well Jody, that’s an interesting philosphical point isn’t it? Aren’t WE ALL THE LESSER OF SEVERAL EVILS? At what point does a person or program become "evil" then in your philosophy? Does something have to have a score, however you score it, of 90% or better to be good, or just 51%? And if one’s choices are "A" or "B" and A is PREFERABLE, but not perfect have you really chosen an "evil" or simply accepted what was realistically available? I understand you probably don’t mean "evil" as in Evilllllllll, but having used the term it tends to colour the debate.
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
AFAIAC, the biggest boondoggle, the prescription drug benefit was a major campaign plank for both parties in 2000. You are saying that shouldn’t have made you wonder about a "conservative" when he is promising what even then would have been considered hundreds of billions of dollars in extra welfare expenditures?
On the war front, you could maybe make the case that he played more of a non-intervention card in the election than turned out. He did have outside cause for that, though..
It’s one thing for the president to "feel your pain", but the only thing the government bureaucracy can do along those lines is to hand you a check.
Written By: anomdebus
URL: http://
The thing I remember most about his 2000 campaign is his emphasis on federal involvement in education. Did everyone think he was going to do this without increasing federal regulations and spending? Hardly a conservative position. I do not understand this alledged surprise at his non-conservative behaviour.
Written By: timactual
URL: http://
All you ever had to do, Bruce, was look at his father.
Written By: Biilly Beck
URL: http://www.two—
Billy is correct, I was never fooled. I voted for him anyway, both times, but only because of who he was running against.
Written By: kyle N
Well, for the record, I didn’t vote for him either time, but was instead simply talking about the impression I had from his campaigns. It’s interesting that Noonan, who probably pays a lot more attention to these things than I do, had the same impression.

What I’m suggesting is that was the purpose of the brand. Sticking "conservative" on the back of "compassionate" had the desired effect ... it created an image that was desired. I don’t particularly fault Bush. I fault myself more for not looking more closely to what was really behind the brand.
Written By: McQ
It was the easiest thing in the world to draw a line from the "Thousand Points of Light" to "No Child Left Behind". While it’s true that we’re talking about mindless bromides in the two cases, what’s also true are the premises under them, and more: the possible implications. In fact, I would say that the bromides exist exactly in order for the furtive shipment of premises. In any case, it’s not a great feat of logical analysis to sort them to their premises, which means that the two bromides could have been randomly assigned to either Bush. They both mean the same thing, at their roots. You know, Bruce, what I have in mind when I use the term, "commie".

This should not be hard to figure out.

And the whole thing is sealed when that "line" that I talk about drawing must necessarily run — historically — through The Ozark Long March.

That, right there, is what I had in mind in December of 2000 when the election was settled and I wrote, "The Clintonism is seeped, now, and I ain’t counting on Dubya to ward it off."

You know what? Now & then, I actually see people referring to The Lying Bastard as a "conservative". (I’m sure you see this, too.) They talk about his "welfare reform", etc. His betrayal of homosexuals in the military. Well. If we can agree that the whole fight in this country is a fight over ideas, then I say that it doesn’t matter so much what he did during his run as what was said: all the noise that came from the hive around him for all those years. (It’s not seriously important that he never had an original or serious political thought in his whole worthless life. It’s far more important that leftist domestic principles got the most serious air-time under him since LBJ.) We’re talking about Gramsci writ large right in our faces for two terms: a devotion to the long run that the Republicans simply cannot match because they don’t have what it takes to play for principles the way that the hive does. (ooh, look out: I said the ’P’ word.)

Tell the truth, Bruce: did you think Gingrich’s "Contract" had the chance of a newborn kitten wobbling around on the track at Daytona? I didn’t. I wasn’t deluded for one single second, ever. You wanna know why? It’s because I took the lesson of my father laughing at my last moment of hope: the Reagan administration. He was right. I was a fool. I had a couple of years there in which I went blithely whistling past the "Obituary" that a certain firebrand immigrant had written in the wake of San Francisco, 1964, which the last chance that you and I can look back on in our lifetimes. And even at that: it was only a chance. I never had hope in Reagan, and I have no problem putting all & sundry noise about "the triumph of capitalism" (again: you know I’m talking about an ethical theory that, for instance, an idiot like "mkultra" will never grasp) in the same bag with Fukuyama: down the toilet. It’s all rubbish.

I don’t know why serious people couldn’t see Dubya coming from a mile away.

And that’s also why — here it comes, of course — I say that any and every scheme to sort this out with voting is utterly foolish. It is completely impossible to vote over principles now, even if I could condone such a horrible thing. The only thing being sorted out now is the details of application of political and ethical theories not seriously open to question anymore.

Bush is no surprise, and — not to put too fine a point on it — I have no sympathy whatever for someone like Noonan. In fact, she makes me laugh.

It beats suicide, and the acid market’s gone to hell.
Written By: Biilly Beck
URL: http://www.two—
Maybe that was the point of the brand. It certainly wasn’t what Noonan expected, and, obviously, it wasn’t what I expected either. And, unfortunately, we’re all the poorer for it.

But you are not all the poorer for it. America’s GDP is growing faster than its debt grows. Is your entire argument is based on some misconception that the American economy is not growing?

At the start of Bush’s term there came the bursting of the ’tech bubble’ which caused a recession. If you can make a case that cutting taxes and stifling spending would have been a better response and delivered more absolute growth under these circumstances then please do so. Without a convincing economic argument to counter Bush’s proven positive results, then all you are saying is you feel America would be better off if it had a smaller government and a poorer economy.
Written By: Unaha-closp
URL: http://
Vox Day’s comment about hits it, "The great cheerleader loses her cherry", both because cheerleaders are stereotypically not bright, and because there are "born-again virgins" out there. Give us another terrorist act on American soil, and Noonan will go running back into Daddy’s lap, and all will be forgiven.

Further comment at:
Written By: Jeffrey Quick
URL: http://
Ok, I voted for Bush the first time, not the second time. I see alot of names voting the same both times, but I was definitely shaken by things. And yes, it was the lesser of two evils, but let’s cut the 90% talk - this percentage bites. I’m not complaining because the man isn’t perfect, I’m complaining because I personally see a total rip-off here. And I’m not uneducated, I know all about ceilings and GDP (yes, read the blog, good stuff); I also know that GDP is growing because we’re needlessly working our butts off trying to pay this insane tab. Ok, so the value of our dollar dropped more than GDP or the deficit, way more, from 3/4 EURO, to 2/3 EURO, to last time I checked creeping closer to 1/2.
Are you aware that in comparisons of the deficit, that we’ve slowly creeped upward for around 100 years? Take a real look at that, at how we were creeping up for 20 years at a steady state. Every year of the Bush administration has set us back 5+ years. The first year eliminated the 4-5 year surplus from before. But what does that matter, we’re passing more bucks, right? This administration excells at that.
So, if you don’t work hard, and you make 60k a year+, and have no children and no plan to get old and depend on government drug care or social security, this may be an actual 50% president. Unfortunately, I probably depend on all the above things because I chose to work hard and do an actual service to the people around me. Of course, if you don’t make 100k, don’t travel to Britain. Fly down to Mexico and visit your kid’s principal’s family, their pesos will begin to creep even closer to our dollar by then.

And I’m not even touching the war or katrina or anything. To maintain the thread, I think he meant to say he was a ’passionate conservative’, given his linguistic skills.
Written By: tygr
URL: http://

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