Where's the Compassion?
Americans normally understand compassion to mean caring for the ill, homeless, hungry, unemployed, destitute and defenseless. "Compassionate" softens "conservative," a word that tends to be associated with smug stinginess rather than benevolence or mercy. "Compassionate conservative" acknowledges that unfortunate stereotype, indicating a person of right-wing inclination who nevertheless feels an obligation to lift up the downtrodden. In the modern context, the term also suggests acceptance of government responsibility--since private charity has never been sufficient to relieve social distress.
But the ideological authors of Bush's "philosophy" have devised their own definition of compassionate conservatism. The phrase itself usually refers to the policy prescriptions of Marvin Olasky, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas who also publishes World, an ultraconservative, fundamentalist-Christian newsweekly. With the assistance of the Heritage Foundation and other think tanks on the right, Olasky has written three books extolling religious charity as a moral alternative to the sinful welfare state.
In early 1996, Newt Gingrich wrote a gushing introduction to Olasky's book Renewing American Compassion. Four years later, Bush contributed the foreword to Olasky's next volume, Compassionate Conservatism: What It Is, What It Does, and How It Can Transform America. Christian Century's reviewer called it "less a book than an advertisement for Bush's presidential campaign." Although Bush used rhetoric about compassion to distance himself publicly from Gingrich, their overlapping relationships with Olasky showed how little ideological space really existed between them. Both had endorsed the rebranding of conservatism with a human face. Both had done favors for this idea's "godfather" and accepted favors from him. Both were determined to dismantle the programs of the New Deal and the Great Society, from Social Security to Medicare.
But Gingrich couldn't redecorate his threatening image in comforting pastels. He wasn't sufficiently nimble to move in two directions at once. Bush, having entered the national consciousness as an unknown figure marked only by his father's famous name, had no need to remake a damaged image. He rolled himself out as the "conservative with a heart," and profited by contrasting himself with the disgraced former Speaker. And if Bush's differences with Gingrich were a pretense--as they surely were--that easy deception only reflected the more profound dishonesty of the "compassion" strategy.
Now, after observing Bush's first few years in the Oval Office, we have a clearer understanding of what his words meant on that auspicious day in New Hampshire. Being a "fiscal conservative" meant passing lopsided tax cuts for the wealthy few and leaving the federal budget in deficit for the foreseeable future. Being a "family conservative" meant looking after certain families, particularly if their annual incomes are higher than $200,000 and their estates are valued at more than $2 million. And so far, being a "compassionate conservative" appears to mean nothing very different from being a hardhearted, stingy, old-fashioned conservative.
Bush's budgets prove that he still emphatically prefers cutting the taxes of wealthy individuals and corporations to maintaining living standards for poor and working-class families. States and localities, their economies soured and their budgets overstrained, are unable to maintain services for their neediest citizens. Food deliveries to many of the helpless elderly will end. Nearly a million Americans are losing their Medicaid benefits in what the National Governors Association describes as "the worst fiscal crisis since World War II." For the first time in a decade, the rate of poverty is rising again, with 1.3 million Americans falling below the poverty line in 2001.
The most vigorous response of the Bush White House to these grim prospects is to propose abolishing "double taxation" of stock dividends. "That is very much pro-poor," according to R. Glenn Hubbard, the former chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, even though the poor won't get any of the benefits.
While he is fighting to allow the highest income class to pay nothing on investment earnings, he is tightening the requirements for those who seek the earned-income tax credit--meaning the working poor. Essentially a refund of a portion of regressive payroll taxes paid by low-income workers, the EITC is one of the most successful government initiatives directed toward Americans who work full-time but cannot earn enough to keep their families above the poverty line. In 1999, at the zenith of his compassionate phase, Bush stood up as a defender of the EITC against Congressional Republicans who were trying to reduce it. He quite rightly denounced the scheme pushed by his fellow Texan Tom DeLay, a professing Christian, as an attempt to balance the federal budget "on the backs of the poor." But having since legislated mammoth tax cuts for the wealthy and run up a record deficit, Bush won't defend EITC from conservatives in the White House and Congress who are seeking to cut it, eliminate the funds that help workers apply for it, impose harsher audits on families that claim it--or even eliminate it.