George W. Bush Was Right

A day or so ago I was reading some comments here and noted someone who stated that Republicans are supposed to be the “Party of Morality”.  Interesting observation, that.  I don’t disagree with it necessarily, but I don’t think we have a full appreciation of what it means.


I think George W. Bush did.

Subsequently, I did a bit of reading on Bush’s focus on “compassionate conservatism”.  Around here, that phrase garners a lot of derision and criticism, mostly because of the way that the GWB administration implemented some of the President’s ideas.  But Dubya’s ideas on what that really meant don’t necessarily correlate with how it was implemented legislatively.  In 1999, Myron Magnet defined the term in a WSJ article:  “Compassionate conservatism does represent a break with national Republican programs of the past. But far from being an empty slogan, it is a well-formed domestic policy agenda.  At its core is concern for the poor —not a traditional Republican preoccupation —and an explicit belief that government has a responsibility for poor Americans.

Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 was fundamentally a lack of articulation of compassionate conservatism.

Note that I do not accuse Romney of not being compassionate.  Quite the contrary – I believe Gov. Romney is, was and has been quite compassionate and generous to the needy.  The problem is:  he did a lousy job in expressing it.  Romney’s “47%” comment was killer.  As was his comment stating “I’m not concerned about the very poor”.  The guy had footprints on his tongue from the number of times he stuck his foot in his mouth.  And with a mainstream media that was already in the bag for the Democrat, it was a death knell for Mitt Romney.  He was a big business guy whose Bain Capital already had a reputation for laying off workers.  He was rich.  And his public statements made him look like Ebeneezer Scrooge. Regarding the “not concerned about the very poor” comment, Redstate’s Jeff Emanuel pointed out:

The fact he didn’t mean precisely that is immaterial; you simply can’t say that in a political campaign, particularly when you’re (a) already filthy rich (and have never spent a day of your life in the middle class, let alone as a ‘poor’ individual), and (b) running for the top position in a party that is already portrayed by media and opposition as being unconcerned with any Americans outside of the super rich.

To the electorate, he was not a compassionate conservative.

This past March, the American Enterprise Institute’s Arthur Brooks wrote an insightful piece for the WSJ titled “Republicans and Their Faulty Moral Arithmetic“.  In it, Brooks noted:

There is only one statistic needed to explain the outcome of the 2012 presidential election. An April poll—which mirrored every other poll on the subject—found that only 33% of Americans said that Mitt Romney “cares about people like me.” Only 38% said he cared about the poor.

Conservatives rightly complain that this perception was inflamed by President Obama’s class-warfare campaign theme. But perception is political reality, and over the decades many Americans have become convinced that conservatives care only about the rich and powerful.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. If Republicans and conservatives double down on the promotion of economic growth, job creation and traditional values, Americans might turn away from softheaded concerns about “caring.” Right?

Wrong. As New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown in his research on 132,000 Americans, care for the vulnerable is a universal moral concern in the U.S. In his best-selling 2012 book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” Mr. Haidt demonstrated that citizens across the political spectrum place a great importance on taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak. By contrast, moral values such as sexual purity and respect for authority—to which conservative politicians often give greater emphasis—resonate deeply with only a minority of the population. Raw money arguments, e.g., about the dire effects of the country’s growing entitlement spending, don’t register morally at all.


This, in a nutshell, is the problem.  The American public believes that we do not care about them and their interests.  We are seen as the Party of Ebeneezer Scrooge, and Mitt Romney did us no favors on this front.  Since, as Brooks points out, “perception is political reality”, it really didn’t/doesn’t matter that our message of fiscal restraint and prosperity through economic growth is correct.

George W. Bush understood this.

And guys like Jonah Goldberg have figured this out.

As a candidate, Bush distanced himself from the Gingrich “revolutionaries” of the 1994 Congress, and he criticized social conservatives such as Robert Bork, who had written an admittedly uncheery book, Slouching towards Gomorrah. He talked endlessly about what a tough job single mothers have and scolded his fellow conservatives for failing to see that “family values don’t end at the Rio Grande.” As president, he said that “when somebody hurts, government has got to move.” According to compassionate conservatives, reflexive anti-statism on the right is foolish, for there are many important — and conservative — things the state can do right.

Compassionate conservatism always struck me as a philosophical surrender to liberal assumptions about the role of the government in our lives. A hallmark of Great Society liberalism is the idea that an individual’s worth as a human being is correlated to his support for massive expansions of the entitlement state. Conservatives are not uncompassionate. (Indeed, the data show that conservatives are more charitable with their own money and more generous with their time than liberals are.) But, barring something like a natural disaster, they believe that government is not the best and certainly not the first resort for acting on one’s compassion.

I still believe all of that, probably even more than I did when Bush was in office.

But, as a political matter, it has become clear that he was on to something important.

Important, indeed.  As Goldberg points out, conservatives are not uncompassionate.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  But, as a political matter, things are different.  Political perception is reality.  This is exactly what Arthur Brooks is referring to.  Brooks also illustrates the idiocy of believing that liberals are somehow more compassionate than conservatives.

Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoint

The irony is maddening. America’s poor people have been saddled with generations of disastrous progressive policy results, from welfare-induced dependency to failing schools that continue to trap millions of children.

Meanwhile, the record of free enterprise in improving the lives of the poor both here and abroad is spectacular. According to Columbia University economist Xavier Sala-i-Martin, the percentage of people in the world living on a dollar a day or less—a traditional poverty measure—has fallen by 80% since 1970. This is the greatest antipoverty achievement in world history. That achievement is not the result of philanthropy or foreign aid. It occurred because billions of souls have been able to pull themselves out of poverty thanks to global free trade, property rights, the rule of law and entrepreneurship.

The left talks a big game about helping the bottom half, but its policies are gradually ruining the economy, which will have catastrophic results once the safety net is no longer affordable. Labyrinthine regulations, punitive taxation and wage distortions destroy the ability to create private-sector jobs. Opportunities for Americans on the bottom to better their station in life are being erased.


Unfortunately, when the Left “talks a big game”, people listen.  But we continue to sound like we just don’t care.

In a speech earlier this year, Michael Medved discussed this very issue.  He had some interesting ideas:

There are three things to show the way that we care, to emphasize it:

  • Number one is to treat people like individuals rather than as members of groups.
  • Number two is to emphasize the personal more than the political.
  • And number three is to emphasize the positive more than the negative.

Medved’s thoughts here relate directly to what we’re seeing today with immigration.  We are once again losing the “political perception is reality” war.  And again, we look like uncompassionate Scrooges.  He addresses this:

When it comes to treating people as members of groups, not treating them that way but treating them as individuals, this is one of those things that we are very very good on. It is the other side that wants to classify everybody by a bunch of boxes on the census bureau. They want to divide people according to race. They want to divide people according to marital status. They want to divide people according to sexual orientation. The truth of the matter is we can’t fall into that. That is precisely why that comment about 47% of Americans who don’t pay taxes was so devastating. Those 47% of Americans who don’t pay taxes are by no means all free loaders. Nobody in America, okay I won’t say nobody, very few people in America want to be dependent on the government. Most of the people who receive food stamps do not want to receive food stamps forever.

We are Americans, Americans love to work. Most Americans do love to work. By the way, that is emphatically true of immigrants including people who have immigrated to this country illegally. Most of them are working. In fact the percentage of unemployment and idleness among illegal immigrants is below 4%.

Why, because it is really really hard, and it should be, to get any kind of public benefits. When people come over to this country and sometimes crawl through sewers and over broken glass and risk their lives to come here, they don’t come here because they want to replicate Mexico or El Salvador or any place else. This is one of the reasons that if we want to show that yes we are a party that cares let us recognize that we judge people not in the categories they are but as individuals.

Which means that if there is someone who has broken the law and entered this country illegally, that cannot be the only crime for which there is no possible redemption or forgiveness. There has to be a process and it shouldn’t be easy but if someone is deeply committed and is willing to pay fines and do a lot of paperwork and go to the back of the line and take a lot of time and effort just to become an American citizen to discomfort himself like that, for us to say no, we are not going to treat you as in individual we are not going to treat you as a fellow American, you are going to be a member of this group forever because of the way you entered this country and there is nothing you can possibly do about it.

If we take that position, we lose credibility as a party of compassion. We lose credibility as a party that treats people as individuals based on their individual desires. If we assume that everybody who currently is getting some kind of federal benefit, by the way, one of the things that is stunning about this, they did a huge piece in The New York Times they couldn’t understand it. Where in Red States the majority of people who were getting benefits were voting Republican. The ideas that people don’t want that, that is not an ambition for Americans to live based on the government dole. So you appeal to individuals.


I don’t expect this particular train of thought to appeal to the “build a wall and deport ’em all” crowd.  But that’s just the problem.  We must think of people as individuals and consider that they all have individual situations to deal with, rather than treating immigrants as a bunch of people who want to mooch off the US of A.   Illegal immigrants are not all here to suck up food stamps and free healthcare.  We must not fall into the trap of stereotyping those in need, whether they be immigrants, the homeless, single moms, etc.

Our messaging is the other key item that Medved notes

That brings me to being positive rather than negative. It is very very hard to sound compassionate; it is very very hard to sound caring when you are always talking about the end of the world. One of the things I have said on my radio show many times is that it is absolutely safe to bet against the end of the world. Why?  Because usually you are going to win. If you lose that bet you won’t be around to pay it off. So you have nothing to worry about. Bet against the end of the world. One of the things that upsets me is Conservative rhetoric that says we have lost our country. This is what turns people off about Conservatives. And by the way, President Obama just recently went through the worst week of his presidency. No president in history, he had a 13 point swing in his approval rating with (Gallup), a 13 point swing in five days because of the sequester. Why, because he was, as Peggy Noonan said today in the journal, Dr. Doom. Oh it is gloom, it is doom.

The American people don’t respond to that. They respond to “its morning in America.” They respond to our greatest days are ahead of us not behind us. They respond to the fact that this country is a nation of kindness and optimism. And when it comes to that optimistic spirit that is why the core issue here is not a green eye shade kind of where we have to balance the budget and we have to balance this. It has to be growth. That is what we are talking about. Growing the economy, growing families, growing communities, growing lives we have the right answers. We have the right answers not only for the country, not only for our states, as Arizona is demonstrating, we have the right answers for individuals and for families and for communities and that is what we have to be able to do, If we emphasize appealing to people based on their individual characteristics and decisions not membership in some kind of group not writing people off based upon being a member of some type of group …

We must stop with the shrillness and screeching.  End-of-the-world talk doesn’t get us anywhere.  Whether or not an immigration bill passes, the nation will still exist.  Obama was elected, and we’re still here.  The players change and the ideas morph, but we’re still here.  And yet we still scream “THIS IS THE END!”

After the 2012 election, Erick Erickson wrote:

We have too many outrage pimps on both sides of the aisle whipping the respective bases into a frenzy and fury against the other side. I don’t have enough time or energy to be outraged about it all. There are things to be outraged by, but not everything, and certainly not with full energy dedicated to every perceived slight and grievance.

What I am finding is that among conservatives there is too much outrage, piss, and vinegar. It makes our ideas less effective. We have become humorless, angry opponents of the President instead of happy warriors selling better ideas. We are not even selling ideas.

Conservatives, frankly, have become purveyors of outrage instead of preachers for a cause. Instead of showing how increasing government harms people, how free markets help people, and how conservative policies benefit all Americans, we scream “Benghazi” and “Fast & Furious.”

We’re off key and off message. We’ve become professional victims dialed up to 10 on the outrage meter. Who the hell wants to listen to conservatives whining and moaning all the time about the outrage du jour? Seriously? Mitt Romney ran a campaign on just how bad things are, but he was rejected by a majority of Americans who felt like he really did not care about them and really had no plans to improve their lives.


It’s time for us to stop with the outrage peddling and start showing that we care about people like us.  We must be happy warriors…happy warriors who care more about people than politics.

Back to Arthur Brooks:

Some say the solution for conservatives is either to redouble the attacks on big government per se, or give up and try to build a better welfare state. Neither path is correct. Raging against government debt and tax rates that most Americans don’t pay gets conservatives nowhere, and it will always be an exercise in futility to compete with liberals on government spending and transfers.

Instead, the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies.

Yes.  Exactly.  And that’s what “compassionate conservatism” was supposed to be about…not about “No Child Left Behind” or Medicare Part D.  It was about supporting vulnerable people via charities and other organizations, with a little help from the government.  True “compassionate conservatism” is about empowering charities to help the needy…to enable “little platoons” to assist.  The Hudson Institute’s William Schambra:

The ’90s was a heady time for compassionate conservatism, Mr. Kuo noted in Tempting Faith.

Faced with widespread evidence of moral and cultural decay in America, which fell especially severely on low-income Americans, conservatives had begun to realize that nostrums about the wonders of tax cuts and economic growth were no longer adequate.

“Praising business was fine with me, but sometimes it felt like business was akin to a real Santa Claus in the minds of Republicans—always doing good and helping people. I hardly believed that.”

The answer, Mr. Kuo maintained, was an effort to “revitalize what the 18th-century British political writer Edmund Burke called ‘little platoons.’ They were the churches and schools, clubs and charities that served neighbors.”

Practicing “hands-on compassion,” such groups relied on intense, face-to-face spiritual connections to overcome the self-defeating cultural habits linked to poverty.

Government, however, had taken over “feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and helping suffering Americans and so undermined these little platoons.”

As a remedy, smaller government was necessary, but by no means sufficient. The object of compassionate conservatism was not so much to reduce government spending as to redeploy it so that it reinforced, rather than subverted, faith-based groups.

These convictions were shared by then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

This is where “compassionate conservatism” should be.  Rather than having the government provide assistance, it should be enabling other philanthropic organizations.  But many of these efforts were squelched.  Thanks to the ACLU and the complicit Left (among others), the organizations that are best equipped to provide cost-effective service to the needy were denied.

But they weren’t the only ones at fault.  Schambra continues:

But potential donors “proved to be much more enthusiastic about politics than grass-roots assistance for the poor,” he found.

“Big Republican donors were not interested in funding anti-poverty programs. Had I called with a proposal for a new political organization that took on the Clintons [then in the White House], funding would have been lavish. That wasn’t speculation. It was what donors told me.”

This indifference was particularly puzzling, Mr. Kuo observed, because charitable support for faith-based efforts would indeed have produced tangible, albeit not immediate, political results.

Such efforts were typically located among and managed by low-income African-Americans and Hispanics, demographic groups that were a growing share of the electorate but from whom conservatives had attracted negligible support.

A serious faith-based effort was the ideal way to bridge that chasm. That’s why the only serious White House staff support for President Bush’s faith-based program came from those who grasped its profound long-term political implications.


We are (were) our own worst enemies.

Note the source & focus of the faith-based organizations – “demographic groups that were a growing share of the electorate but from whom conservatives had attracted negligible support”.  Just the groups that we have trouble reaching today.  Interestingly, a well-executed “compassionate conservative” strategy could have (and still could) produced not only benefits for the needy, but also for conservatives:

When the conservative activist Ralph Reed observed an auditorium full of minority grass-roots leaders listening raptly to Bush administration officials describe the faith-based program, he exclaimed to Mr. Kuo: “Do you realize what this is? This is what Republicans have been trying to do for the last 20 years. For the last 20 years we’ve tried to find a way to get this kind of audience into a room.”

Even with the prospect of such long-term political rewards, though, Mr. Kuo came to believe that Republicans were only comfortable speaking out “for tax cuts, business growth, a strong military. Compassion as policy really wasn’t what Republicans did.”

Mr. Kuo could not have been surprised at the outcome of the 2012 presidential election, when a compassionless agenda of business growth found no traction among the demographic groups for whom faith-based programs had initially been designed.

And yet we still slam President Bush’s ideas and efforts.

Read that quote again.  Note:  “Mr. Kuo came to believe that Republicans were only comfortable speaking out “for tax cuts, business growth, a strong military. Compassion as policy really wasn’t what Republicans did.”  Friends, this is the same perception that we are faced with today.  The perception is that compassion isn’t “what we do”.

Political perception is reality.

Brooks proposes a solution to all this:

Some say the solution for conservatives is either to redouble the attacks on big government per se, or give up and try to build a better welfare state. Neither path is correct. Raging against government debt and tax rates that most Americans don’t pay gets conservatives nowhere, and it will always be an exercise in futility to compete with liberals on government spending and transfers.

Instead, the answer is to make improving the lives of vulnerable people the primary focus of authentically conservative policies. For example, the core problem with out-of-control entitlements is not that they are costly—it is that the impending insolvency of Social Security and Medicare imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. Education innovation and school choice are not needed to fight rapacious unions and bureaucrats—too often the most prominent focus of conservative education concerns—but because poor children and their parents deserve better schools.

Defending a healthy culture of family, community and work does not mean imposing an alien “bourgeois” morality on others. It is to recognize what people need to be happy and successful—and what is most missing today in the lives of too many poor people.

By making the vulnerable a primary focus, conservatives will be better able to confront some common blind spots. Corporate cronyism should be decried as every bit as noxious as statism, because it unfairly rewards the powerful and well-connected at the expense of ordinary citizens. Entrepreneurship should not to be extolled as a path to accumulating wealth but as a celebration of everyday men and women who want to build their own lives, whether they start a business and make a lot of money or not. And conservatives should instinctively welcome the immigrants who want to earn their success in America.


Let’s net that out:

  • Stop the rage peddling
  • Focus on improving the lives of vulnerable people via authentic conservative policies.  Make it clear that those in need are the focus and not corporate cronyism.
  • Articulate the benefits to the family in a way that recognizes how our policies benefit the vulnerable and poor as a primary focus.
  • Welcome immigrants that want to earn their success in America

Some of this is simple messaging and attitude, and some of it is the basic philosophy we follow in lawmaking.  If we approach our messaging and our policy proposals from a point of view that considers the “moral arithmetic” of America and we articulate our policies through a framework of care for those less fortunate, we can win … politically, economically and morally.

That is compassionate conservatism.




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