The Right Opinion

Compassionate Conservatism Redux

By Jonah Goldberg · Nov. 16, 2012

I think I owe an apology to George W. Bush.

William F. Buckley once noted that he was 19 when the Cold War began at the Yalta conference. The year the Berlin Wall came down, he became a senior citizen. In other words, he explained, anti-Communism was a defining feature of conservatism his entire adult life. Domestically, meanwhile, the right was largely a “leave me alone coalition”: Religious and traditional conservatives, overtaxed businessmen, Western libertarians, and others fed up with government social engineering and economic folly. The foreign policy battle against tyrannical statism abroad only buttressed the domestic antagonism toward well-intentioned and occasionally democratic statism at home.

The end of the Cold War gave way to what Charles Krauthammer dubbed the “holiday from history” of the 1990s and the “war on terror” in the 2000s. People forget that Bush was elected during the former and had the latter thrust upon him. But at the end of the 1990s, he was one of many voices on the right trying to craft a political rationale to deal with the changing electoral and demographic landscape. He campaigned on a “humble foreign policy” in 2000 and promised something very, very different than a “leave me alone” domestic policy.

He called his new approach to domestic policy “compassionate conservatism.”

For years, I've criticized “compassionate conservatism” as an insult to traditional conservatism and an affront to all things libertarian.

Bush liked to say that he was a “different kind of Republican,” that he was a “compassionate conservative.”

I hated – and still hate – that formulation. Imagine if someone said, “I'm a different kind of Catholic (or Jew, or American, etc.): I'm a compassionate Catholic.” The insinuation was – by my lights, at least – that conservatives who disagreed with him and his “strong-government conservatism” were somehow lacking in compassion.

As a candidate, Bush distanced himself from the Gingrich “revolutionaries” of the 1994 Congress, and he criticized social conservatives like Robert Bork for his admittedly uncheery book, “Slouching Towards Gomorrah.” He talked endlessly about how tough a job single mothers have and scolded his fellow conservatives for failing to see that “family values don't end at the Rio Grande.” As president, he said that “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.” According to compassionate conservatives, reflexive anti-statism on the right is foolish, for there are many important – and conservative – things the state can do right.

Compassionate conservatism always struck me as a philosophical surrender to liberal assumptions about the role of the government in our lives. A hallmark of Great Society liberalism is the idea that an individual's worth as a human being is correlated to his support for massive expansions of the entitlement state. Conservatives are not uncompassionate. (Indeed, the data show that conservatives are more charitable with their own money and more generous with their time than liberals). But, barring something like a natural disaster, they believe that government is not the best and certainly not the first resort for acting on one's compassion.

I still believe all of that, probably even more than I did when Bush was in office.

But, as a political matter, it has become clear that he was on to something important.

Neither critics nor supporters of compassionate conservatism could come to a consensus over the question of whether it was a mushy-gushy marketing slogan (a Republican version of Bill Clinton's feel-your-pain liberalism) or a serious philosophical argument for a kind of Tory altruism, albeit with an evangelical idiom and a Texan accent.

Some sophisticated analysts, such as my National Review colleague Ramesh Ponnuru, always acknowledged the philosophical shortcomings and inconsistencies of compassionate conservatism, but argued that something like it was necessary nonetheless. The evolving demographics of the country, combined with the profound changes to both the culture and the economy, demanded the GOP change both its sales pitch and its governing philosophy.

Compassionate conservatism increasingly faded from view after 9/11. Bush ran as a war president first and a compassionate conservative at best second in 2004. Still, it's worth remembering that Bush won a staggering (for a Republican) 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. Romney got 27 percent.

Moreover, according to exit polls, Romney decisively beat Obama on the questions of leadership, values and economic expertise, but was crushed by more than 60 points on the question of which candidate “cares about people like me.”

I still don't like compassionate conservatism or its conception of the role of government. But given the election results, I have to acknowledge that Bush was more prescient than I appreciated at the time.

© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


d.w.hudson in Michigan said:

When will you get it through your thick's not about the black vote, or the white vote, or the hispanic vote, or the asian vote, or the women's vote. IT IS ABOUT THE CONSTITUTION. We have had the formula for a great nation of freedom for over 230 years, and nearly everybody who is elected screws it up even more than the person elected before them screwed it up. IT IS ABOUT THE CONSTITUTION.

Friday, November 16, 2012 at 9:21 AM

wjm in Colorado said:

Conservatism must never try to mediate with the marxist statist ideology. What has defeated Conservatism is an all out assault on the Constitution by the takeover of education and the media, and an ever expanding welfare state that depends on government for survival. The tipping point has been reached, more takers than makers, and Atlas has Shrugged. If the mindset that government is the benefactor cannot be changed, the only result will be Marxist Statist control and eventual failure of government, followed by dictatorship. Examples abound, the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and now the United States. The people have voted for the Destruction of America. FORWARD Comrades!

Friday, November 16, 2012 at 10:07 AM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA replied:

wjm, Couldn't agree with you more. We are on the downhill slide to Socialism and have been since Wilson, then Roosevelt, Johnson, and now Odumbo. The liberals no longer believe in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. They only reference them if it fits their agenda. If it doesn't they interpret it as a "living document" that has to evolve over time. They believe the government is the be all and end all totally disregarding that the Declaration of Independence stated that every one had the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but didn't state the government was responsible for us achieving them.

Friday, November 16, 2012 at 11:10 AM

Rod in USA replied:

I agree with you totally. Our educational system has dumbed down the population over decades and changed our culture to one where we accept big government and fear the concept of surviving on our own. How does a candidate engage in a prolonged conversation to awaken that pride to would reject cradle to grave handouts?

Friday, November 16, 2012 at 1:12 PM

Stuart (Austin, TX) in Austin, TX said:

Jonah: Normally I read your columns with great appreciation and relish. This one, however, leaves much to be desired. The mistake Romney made was not that he was insufficiently compassionate. It was that he failed to motivate voters to believe that he would make a difference. When put in a position of having to choose between a one big-government statist versus another, guess what? Enthusiasm wanes and margins are lost. If Romney had only garnered the same vote tallies that the fecklessly moderate John McCain had, he would've won. We need an actual conservative GOP candidate, not another guy from liberal Massachusetts. We need to hold fewer Republican primary debates, and only on Fox News, and never employing moderators who are Democrats. Ya think?

Friday, November 16, 2012 at 5:15 PM