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Where's the Compassion? | The Nation

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Where's the Compassion?

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"I am a fiscal conservative and a family conservative. And I am a compassionate conservative, because I know my philosophy is optimistic and full of hope for every American." So George W. Bush described himself and his beliefs on the eve of his first campaign for President. With that speech, the Texas governor hoped to finesse a paradox of national politics. To win the nomination of the Republican Party, he had to be acceptable to every kind of conservative, from the libertarian to the fundamentalist; to win the presidency itself, he also had to embody an alternative to the angry conservatism that Americans had found increasingly repellent during the Clinton years.

This article, adapted from Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda
Machine and How It Distorts the Truth
(St. Martin's Press), was originally published in the September 15, 2003 issue of The Nation.

About the Author

Joe Conason
Joe Conason is founder and editor-in-chief of The National Memo, a daily political newsletter and website, and Editor...

Also by the Author

When Paul Wellstone perished in a plane crash along with his wife, his
daughter and three members of his staff in October 2002, the horror of
his death nearly overshadowed the meaning of his li

Moderate, suburban voters were alienated by the partisanship, self-righteous hypocrisy and antigovernment extremism of Newt Gingrich's Republican "revolutionaries." By 1999 the House Speaker's colleagues had immolated him, but his brief tenure and the impeachment fiasco he sponsored left behind a cloud of acrid smoke.

Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove knew that he could ill afford his father's mistake of alienating the far right. At the same time, they knew he had to avoid being isolated politically on the right. "Compassionate conservatism" was their answer. So deft was this gambit that it left journalists gawking and scratching their heads, as if they had witnessed the candidate literally running in two directions at once.

During the election year to come, Bush and Rove will renew the "compassionate conservatism" theme to draw independent, female and minority voters, balancing the appeal of a "wartime presidency" that is already beginning to lose its luster. The President recently returned to emphasizing buzzwords like "inclusive, positive and hopeful" in a June speech to the Urban League.

Indeed, "compassion" is a featured topic on the new website put up by Bush-Cheney '04 (www.georgewbush.com), where "news" about the President's agenda of compassion includes highlights like "President stresses importance of health and fitness." The need for such filler reflects how thin the Administration's portfolio for the poor remains. The site's most noticeable feature is a "compassion photo album" consisting almost entirely of photos of the smiling Bush with smiling black children. This is almost identical to the public-relations material Bush and his advisers rolled out during the 2000 campaign (and the minstrel-show GOP convention in Philadelphia), repackaged to remind voters that he is, or purports to be, a "different kind of Republican."

Distinguishing son from father was a process that began during George W.'s second gubernatorial campaign in 1998, with a massive wave of television advertising created by Mark McKinnon, formerly a top Democratic consultant in Austin. McKinnon honestly believed that George W. Bush was a "different kind of Republican," a bipartisan leader who cared about the poor, and that belief showed in his advertising. Later, McKinnon, Rove and other advisers developed the same themes into a more sophisticated strategy that drew from the two most successful politicians of the postwar era, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

From Reagan, the Bush advisers borrowed the friendly optimism, the down-home cowboy boots and the lavishly produced Morning in America style of advertising, which they retitled "Fresh Start." (If that sounded like a breakfast cereal or deodorant, it was entirely appropriate.) From Clinton, they adopted the supple tactics of repositioning their rhetoric toward the center and rephrasing issues to neutralize any partisan disadvantage.

This wasn't the first time, of course, that attractive branding had sold the nation a phony product. After two years of skewed tax cuts, destructive deregulation and social regression, nobody doubts Bush's conservatism. But where's the compassion?

To paraphrase a famous man, it depends on what the meaning of that word is.

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.

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.

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