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Michael Gerson / Dec. 17, 2008

The Death of Compassionate Conservatism

WASHINGTON – For most liberals, the advent of Barack Obama is enough to make their holiday joy complete, even as he seems to embrace a number of Bush-era approaches on the economy and national defense. But some conservatives feel compelled to celebrate the season by showing George W. Bush their Christmas jeer.

Witness John O'Sullivan, writing in a recent National Review. After accusing others – namely me – of being “morally condescending” and “downright hostile” to other forms of conservatism, O'Sullivan presses his own condescending and hostile case against Bush’s compassionate conservatism.

O'Sullivan’s main arguments come down to these: The phrase compassionate conservatism is redundant, because “relieving poverty and improving the condition of the people have been important strands of every conservatism since Edmund Burke.” And because this governing approach is merely “a romantic cult of sensibility,” it is incapable of setting priorities, causing it to scatter money and good intentions to the fickle winds.

There is, in fact, a long, respectable conservative tradition of modifying or replacing the word “conservatism.” We have seen, in various eras, the coinage of Tory Democracy, progressive conservatism, neoconservatism and national greatness conservatism. And there is a reason for this – because not “every” conservatism has shown an equal concern for the “condition of the people.” Not the slaveholding conservatism of John C. Calhoun, which somehow found torture, rape and stolen labor to be a defensible part of the natural order. Not the isolationist conservatism before World War II that would have left Britain to face evil alone. Not the segregationist conservatism that defended the tradition of humiliating your neighbor. Such “conservatisms” merit hostility.

More recently (and in an entirely different league of moral offensiveness), there is also the Republican libertarianism of former Rep. Dick Armey, who once declared Medicare “a program I would have no part of in a free world.” And of fiscal conservatives who proposed to delay the Medicare prescription drug benefit, or eliminate the president’s global AIDS initiative, as an offset for Katrina spending.

Sometimes there is nothing more useful than a strong adjective in the drawing of essential distinctions – and “compassionate” will do for now.

The second thesis – that compassionate conservatism is scattered and undisciplined – is a testable one. During the last eight years, the Bush administration focused on reforming public schools to make them perform for minority students (with generally encouraging results), providing prescription drug benefits for low-income seniors (at a lower cost than many predicted), distributing life-saving treatments for millions of dying Africans, and encouraging faith-based social services for addicts and directionless children. No legislative solution is perfect or complete. But which priority would O'Sullivan conservatives have struck off the list?

Far from being a vague, weepy tenderness, compassionate conservatism has a rigorous definition. It teaches that the pursuit of the common good is a moral goal. It asserts that this goal is best achieved through strong families, volunteer groups and communities that all deserve legal deference and respect. But it also accepts that when local institutions fail – a child is betrayed by a consistently failing school, a state passes a Jim Crow law, a nation is helpless to tackle a treatable disease – the federal government has a responsibility to intervene. Such interventions generally are most successful when they promote individual and community empowerment instead of centralizing bureaucratic control. But when that is not possible, it is fully appropriate to send in the Army to desegregate the schools of Little Rock.

Instead of being a “romantic cult,” compassionate conservatism is often motivated by an ancient orthodoxy: that God is somehow found especially incarnate in the poor, suffering and weak. Instead of being a “sentiment,” it is a conviction: that government can be a noble enterprise when it applies creative conservative and free-market ideas to the task of helping those in need.

This, of course, implies a critique of traditional or libertarian conservatism. Tradition often contains stores of hidden wisdom – but in the absence of moral vision, it can become warped and oppressive. The free market is the best way to distribute goods and services – but its triumph is not always identical to justice. Conservatism is essential – and incomplete.

The moral commitments that underlie compassionate conservatism will not fade with the passing of a political figure, party or ideology, because these beliefs stand in eternal judgment of all ideologies, including conservatism. And no matter how hard you try, you cannot bury what cannot die.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group 

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