Whatever Happened to Compassionate Conservatism?

Jonathan Cohn notes the final end of compassionate conservatism:

House Republicans want to cut funding for health programs abroad and for community clinics here at home. And although the projected savings are small, at least relative to the size of the federal budget, the philosophical shift they signal is big. This is the end of compassionate conservatism.

You remember compassionate conservatism, don't you? It was George W. Bush’s slogan, going back to the late 1990s, when, as a candidate, he told audiences that “Prosperity without purpose is just materialism” and vowed to “rally the armies of compassion in our communities to fight a very different war against poverty.”

As Cohn points out, there was good reason to be cynical about compassionate conservatism, given the main focus of Bush's domestic policy: tax cuts for wealthy interests. Still, with the expansion of community clinics and large-scale HIV/AIDS relief programs, there was at least a little substance to the slogan. By contrast, for this current crop of Republicans, the poor are -- at best -- an afterthought. As Cohn puts it, "Even if compassionate conservatism was mostly hype, it said something about Bush, his allies, and their supporters that they thought the hype was worth creating."

It's worth pointing out that, in Mike Huckabee, there remains a place for compassionate rhetoric within the conservative movement. His hard-right social agenda notwithstanding, Huckabee's rhetoric on domestic policy occasionally belies a belief in the power of government to help poor people. That is, unlike most Republicans, Huckabee is actually able to talk about poverty in ways that resonate with a lot of voters. For my part, this alone makes him a formidable general-election candidate (though his odds remain slim).

Relatedly, insofar that there is really an "untapped" constituency in American politics, I think that it consists of socially conservative but economically liberal voters, who support far-reaching social programs, provided they're for the "right" people. Indeed, given a different electoral system -- or even multiple-member districts on the congressional level -- I'm reasonably sure that the United States would have a competitive Christian Democrat-style party.

You may also like