Where's the Compassion?
Originally, the twin centerpieces of Bush's compassionate conservatism were his education plan, "No Child Left Behind," and his "faith-based initiative" to direct federal funds toward private charities, including religious institutions. Owing to the deficits caused by the recession and his tax cuts, however, the education bill he negotiated with Senator Edward Kennedy fell far short of the funding he had originally promised. Although his budget proposal increased education spending, the proposed rise was the lowest in several years. He cut a billion dollars from programs specified in his own bill. One statistic summed up Bush's priorities: His tax cuts for the rich amounted to more than fifty times the total amount he requested for new education spending.
Bush's vaunted "faith-based initiative" met an even more disgraceful fate. In the winter of 2002, Bush got a lump of coal in his Christmas stocking from John DiIulio, the former director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. The University of Pennsylvania professor is probably the leading neoconservative exponent of compassionate conservatism. As a devout Catholic and lifelong Democrat, he didn't share Marvin Olasky's religious or social views, but he joined the Republican Administration because he hoped to create innovative programs to assist the poor.
In a devastating, emotional seven-page letter quoted by journalist Ron Suskind in Esquire magazine, DiIulio depicted a White House dominated by partisan cynicism and devoid of competent policy-makers. Karl Rove and his aides dominated every discussion of domestic issues, always emphasizing media and political strategy at the expense of substance and analysis. DiIulio told Suskind that when he objected to a proposal to kill the earned-income tax credit, he suddenly realized that he was arguing with libertarians who understood little about the workings of government and had no interest in learning.
"There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one: a complete lack of a policy apparatus," he said. "What you've got is everything--and I mean everything--being run by the political arm. It's the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis." That was DiIulio's nickname for Karl Rove and his aides, "who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible."
The result is that the President's "faith-based initiative" has been transformed into a patronage operation. During the 2002 midterm-election campaign, Administration officials suddenly showed up at inner-city churches, seeking to entice African-American ministers with federal funding. A half-million-dollar grant was quickly slated for Pat Robertson's quasi-charitable Operation Blessing International Relief and Development Corporation, which the Christian Coalition founder has in the past used to advance his diamond-mining ventures in the Congo region.
The White House staff, he said, "winked at the most far-right House Republicans, who, in turn, drafted a so-called faith bill that...satisfied certain fundamentalist leaders and Beltway libertarians but bore few marks of compassionate conservatism.... Not only that, but it reflected neither the president's own previous rhetoric on the idea nor any of the actual empirical evidence." He declared, "There is a virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded nonpartisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism."
"So-called compassionate conservatism." That phrase, written by a man who said he still loved and admired George W. Bush, resounded with disillusion. Still, DiIulio held out hope that someday in the years to come, his ideal of a spirited movement to uplift the poor might be realized. There was no domestic policy, but in two years, or six years, something might happen.
The saddened professor couldn't quite admit that this President is unlikely ever to fulfill the expectations he raised--because in a White House ruled so thoroughly and ruthlessly by pious conservatives, there is so little room for compassion.