Compassionate Conservatism Lost
Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean, new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D.-Calif.), Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) and the media will portray the takeover as a repudiation of President Bush’s leadership on the war in Iraq. The public’s media-tinted perception of U.S. progress in Iraq, and its subsequent willingness to vote for Democratic House and Senate candidates does not, however, fully explain the switch in party control. No explanation of the Democrats’ takeover is complete without laying partial blame on President Bush’s so-called compassionate conservative agenda.
The term compassionate conservatism was coined by University of Texas professor and World Magazine editor Marvin Olasky in his 2000 book titled “Compassionate Conservatism: What It Is, What It Does, and How it Can Transform America.” In an October 21 Wall Street Journal profile, Bush’s former chief speechwriter Michael Gerson described the President’s governing philosophy this way: "Compassionate conservatism is the theory that the government should encourage the effective provision of social services without providing the service itself."
Bush’s big-government policies have certainly transformed America, but they are not even in the same neighborhood as true limited-government conservatism. Worse, the President, his advisers, the Republican National Committee and Republican leaders in the House and Senate have alienated the party’s conservative base of activists and voters.
Compassionate conservatism first brought us the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. NCLB further consolidated federal oversight of education in an era when local control was the mantra of conservative voters and Republican congressional candidates.
Compassionate conservatism gave us the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act of 2003. A Heritage Foundation report on the Medicare trustees’ estimates finds that "Medicare’s long-term debt, based on a 75-year actuarial projection, is now estimated to be $32.4 trillion. Of that amount, $8 trillion is directly attributable to the Medicare prescription drug entitlement." The prescription drug bill is one of the largest expansions of the entitlement state in our nation’s history.
Bush has further abandoned fiscal conservatism on federal spending, one of the bedrock principles of conservative ideology. According to Richard Viguerie, author of “Conservatives Betrayed,” federal spending rose by 4.7% in President Clinton’s first term, and 3.7% in his second term. Federal spending rose 19.2% in Bush’s first term alone.
Too many Republicans in the House and Senate have enabled the compassionate conservative ruse by refusing to lead on true conservative solutions. The flawed structures of the Social Security and Medicare programs continue to consume a larger portion of federal tax receipts and will soon go bankrupt. The federal income tax code is an unfair burden on every taxpayer, yet few Republicans have joined the march to replace the code with a consumption tax. Our energy prices remain largely at the mercy of Middle East sheiks and South American madmen, yet our political leaders lack the will to authorize consumption of our own abundant oil and natural gas resources.
Now that Democrats have seized control of the House, and possibly the Senate, the president is poised to deliver the knockout blow to conservative voters, the conservative movement and the very Constitution itself. In a most bitter twist of irony, Democratic control of Congress would finally allow Bush to enact his amnesty scheme for the tens of millions of illegal aliens within our borders. Amnesty for illegal aliens is not compassionate, nor is it conservative. It is unconstitutional.
Compassionate conservatism failed America and cost Republicans control. Bush’s guiding philosophy attempted to co-opt the liberal Democratic strategy of campaign to the right, and govern from the middle. To accomplish that feat one must pander to all interest groups, and hope the traditional base stays home on Election Day. If you recall, Bush’s predecessor in the White House utilized the exact same strategy. He called it triangulation.
Conservative voters do not support moderate policy solutions, and they reject moderate Republicans who masquerade as conservative voices. Soon after Fox News declared Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey Jr. the victor over Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, Fox election analysts called Santorum a "compassionate conservative" who looks for government solutions to issues. Republican In Name Only Senators Mike DeWine (R.-Ohio) and Lincoln Chafee (R.-R.I.) were similarly ousted in the Tuesday Night Massacre. Moderate to conservative-leaning Democrats also replaced many Republican House members.
Republican candidates lose when the party apparatus, whose goal is to win elections, abandons the conservative base, whose goal is conservative policy solutions. Just two years ago Bush and Santorum unconscionably endorsed liberal Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.), who was in a primary race with conservative Rep. Pat Toomey. Specter won the primary, but Santorum ultimately paid the price. In this year’s Rhode Island Republican Senate primary, the RNC openly supported the liberal Chafee against his more conservative opponent, Steve Laffey. Chafee is one of the most liberal members of the Senate and refused to vote for President Bush in 2004, writing in the president’s father instead, yet the RNC still paid for ads in his primary race. Rhode Island voters were not likely to nominate or elect a conservative, but the RNC’s actions were heard across the fruited conservative plain. Tap the brakes, Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman. You’re not king makers.
Compassionate conservatism completely betrayed conservative voters and their decades of grassroots activism. Fortunately, all is not lost for the true conservative movement. Every House and Senate seat lost this year is an opportunity for conservatives to re-educate the public on true conservative policy solutions. The coming Republican presidential primary offers a similar chance for renewal and the possible emergence of a genuine successor to Ronald Reagan.
No voter turnout machine put in motion over a three-day pre-election period could have overcome this slap in the face to the Republican Party’s base. Undoing compassionate conservatism’s wreckage will take years, not 72 hours.