What Bush's 'Compassionate Conservatism' Got Right

Bush's "compassionate conservationism" did not mean big government.

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First Things blogger Joe Carter flags a worthwhile interview with former Bush administration official Tim Goeglein about the legacy of "compassionate conservatism."

Goeglein pushes back against what has become an unfortunate consensus on the right: that "compassionate conservatism," however attractive it sounded as rhetoric, amounted to "big-government conservatism"—more spending, more bureaucracy, more public-sector bloat, more ineffectuality.

He says:

When George W. Bush gave one of the most important speeches of his presidency, at Notre Dame, he was specifically countering Lyndon Johnson's notion of the Great Society … What he wanted to do, and what was at the heart of compassionate conservatism, was to advance mercy and compassion by removing an institutional bigotry within the federal bureaucracy against faith-based programs that were turned away just because they were faith-based. George W. Bush made clear that the federal government was not going to buy the Bibles or the crucifixes, but they could further the good work that these faith-based organizations were doing.

And he was right. The private sector, the intermediary institution, the concept of subsidiarity, these were so important to President Bush. He believed in this mission, believed that faith-based groups were often addressing social ills more compassionately and more effectively than the government could do. Removing the institutional bigotry against faith-based programs was exactly the right thing to do.

In the wake of the 2008 defeat, this way of thinking became an ideological scapegoat: "We lost elections because we lost our way—and the way back to power is to scrap the 'compassion' and get back to the fundamentals of limited government."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

But compassionate conservatism, circa 1999, was never supposed to be about aggressive interventionism, either at home or abroad.

As I remember it, the opening salvo of Bush's first presidential campaign was when he confronted the odious Tom DeLay for trying to "balance the budget on the backs of the poor." Bush was right then—and if he said the same thing today, he'd be right again.

Bush's vision of compassionate conservatism was classic Burkeanism. It was about strengthening civil society; it was about the federal government helping the "little platoons" do what they already were doing, without telling them how to do it. The faith-based initiative was (and under President Obama remains) modest in scope and cost. If the total federal budget were an elephant, grants to faith-based organizations accounted for less than a fly—they were microscopic skin cells.

Compassionate conservatism gets a bad rap nowadays mainly because it's identified with the Medicare prescription drug entitlement. Yet, using Goeglein terms, the Part D program was the opposite of modest Burkean reform; it was an extension of the Great Society mentality.

[Mort Zuckerman: Social Security Has Reached a Tipping Point]

On that score, I agree with the Tea Party right that the bill— and the way it was enacted—was a tragic moment for the party. But the Tea Party is fooling itself if it denies the bill helped secure Bush's re-election.

I think compassionate conservatism is also at least vaguely connected in the public imagination to the Iraq war. Bush' faith compelled him to say things like "when somebody hurts, government has got to move." That same simple faith and optimism, according to this line of thinking, led him to launch an adventurous democratist war in the heart of the Arab world.

But the model of compassionate conservatism abroad wasn't the Iraq war. It was Bush's PEPFAR and anti-malarial initiatives in Africa (also cited by Goeglein). These programs worked, and they had the added merit of being cheap. As far as (lately much-maligned) humanitarian foreign aid goes, they were a rare bargain.

[Debate Club: Given The Current Deficit Crisis, Should Foreign Aid Be Cut?]

In any case, I'm glad that Goeglein brought this all up again. Maybe one day Republicans will rediscover compassionate conservatism—a modest vision that was overwhelmed by terror, war, economic calamity, and, finally, an ugly ideological freakout.