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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Compassionate Conservatism in the Modern World

Compassionate Conservatism in the Modern World
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

The theme of "compassionate conservatism" was important in the original presidential campaign of George W. Bush. That such a theme was even considered necessary should be instructive. Something had to be deeply wrong with conservatism if anyone imagined that the public needed to be told that it was possible to be conservative and compassionate at the same time, or that conservatism was being transformed into an ideology more compassionate than in the past.

Deeds are more important than words, so rather than pretend that conservatism can be made compassionate by a mere rhetorical flourish, we should instead ask how the Bush administration has acquitted itself over the past years. It's hard to see anything remotely "compassionate" in a single policy, proposal, signing statement, or any other action taken by the Bush administration. Indeed, there are so many actions that seem to be the opposite of compassionate that it would be difficult to single any one out as truly emblematic of the Bush administration's true character.

Difficult, but not impossible. Bush's recent statements concerning health insurance for children will probably do quite nicely. In explaining why he opposed any expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, George Bush made it clear that his position was purely ideological. It's not the S-CHIP fails to work or fails to be efficient, but it's a government program and that's enough. In response to suggestions that children need access to adequate health care, Bush insisted that everyone has access to health care: "you just go to an emergency room."

I have been suggesting that "compassionate conservatism" isn't really compassionate and, moreover, that this was meant all along as a meaningless, empty marketing slogan. Perhaps that is the case, but regardless of whether it was meant sincerely or insincerely, there is some value in treating it as a sincere, honest statement of genuine principle. How much mileage might Democratic politicians get out of raising high the "compassionate conservatism" banner and making sure everyone knows just what happens when "compassionate conservatives" run the government?

Then, we should ask, how much worse things would be if regular, traditional conservatives were given a chance? If Bush's two terms represent the best that can be expected from "compassionate" conservatives, who could resist the temptation to run rather than walk from anyone proclaiming the "conservative" label? Republicans have been inordinately successful in making the "liberal" label one that liberals shy away from. It's become derogatory rather than descriptive. I see no reason why Democrats can't do the same with "conservative," should the opportunity arise. Is it likely that any better opportunity will come along?

The labels "compassionate conservatism" and "compassionate conservatives" should be attached to every stupid, evil, dishonest, and incompetent thing done by every conservative politician, pundit, and writer. The point should then be made, somewhere along the line, that if this is what we can expect from "compassionate" conservatives, then conservatism itself is unfit as an ideology for any humane, moral, adult person — much less as an ideology of government.

Some might protest that we aren't criticizing an example of "compassionate" conservatism, just regular conservatism, but that's a fine way for them to make our point for us. Let's ensure that "conservative" is welded hard and fast to the government response to Katrina, to denying medical insurance to children, to wars based on lies, to denying gays equality under the law, to religious extremism, and so forth. Yes, there are conservatives who oppose all this, but they've more than enough time and opportunity to make changes from the inside. Time's run out.

This was originally a World War II poster encouraging people to buy bonds because that is "no sacrifice" compared with those who (like this woman and child) lose loved ones in the war.

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