The Dim Future for the Term Compassionate Conservatism Shouldn’t Doom its Underlying Idea

Marc’s previous post on “civic conservatism” prompts me to give my report on the national-state of another conservative brand, “compassionate conservatism”. It’s finished as a political label, but it’s rooted in better ideas than you might think.
At the NRI Conservative Summit, Professor Marvin Olasky, the individual probably most responsible for bringing the term “compassionate conservative” into mainstream public discourse, expressed disappointment with President Bush’s version of compassionately conservative social welfare policy. His complaint was that President Bush has invoked the term “compassionate conservatism” without implementing the underlying ideas on the scale that is necessary.
According to Professor Olasky, compassionate conservatism should involve a radical simplification (my term) in the way that government delivers social welfare benefits to its citizens. He named two specific examples: a) an expanded child tax-credit and b) vouchers that public aid-recipients could use to seek help from social service providers of their choice — faith-based providers included. In contrast, President Bush’s big domestic initiatives, like No-Child-Left-Behind and Medicare part-D, have been attempts to reform and expand existing bureaucracies. Dare I say that on the homefront, President Bush has governed more as a “Rockefeller Republican” who believes that big bureaucracy works, if you just find the right set of managers, and not really as a “compassionate conservative” who believes that something is irretrievably lost when personal efforts to help one another are replaced with government regimentation?
Of course, many mainstream conservatives bristle at the suggestion that “compassionate” can ever be a proper qualifier for conservative, wary that the implication that there is something compassion-neutral about conservatism does more perceptual harm than the modifier heals. This unpopularity with conservatives, combined with compassionate conservatism’s association in the mind of the general public with President Bush and his in-the-thirties approval ratings has already settled the taxonomical argument — “Compassionate Coservatism” as a defining paradigm is not going to catch on. This most emphatically does not mean that the merits of Professor Olasky’s ideas about the role of government in providing social services and individual opportunity should be dismissed.

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