The Making of Compassionate Conservatism
July 23, 1999
by Ryan Streeter
George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" has been the object of talk show derision and presidential jesting. It's too vague, too touchy-feely, critics say. President Clinton, after making light of the notion, said, "Use whatever slogans you want but tell us where you stand."
Others have lumped Bush into the land of the middle, equating his compassionate conservatism with Al Gore's "practical idealism." GOP contender, Gary Bauer, has said that Bush's platform "sounds increasingly like a willingness to go along with the Washington bureaucracy."
It looks like critics will have to come up with some new lines. On July 22, in Indianapolis, Bush the Younger gave his first policy speech on compassionate conservatism. Just how unclear was he? Just how middle-of-the-road?
He pulled no punches in making his campaign centerpiece the idea that prosperity must have a purpose and that government should promote this purpose by supporting faith groups and charitable organizations. Sounds like Al Gore? Not so fast. Consider the differences.
In Gore's much-touted May speech at the Atlanta Salvation Army, he praised the way Americans live out a "politics of community" in their neighborhoods. The work of faith-based organizations, to which government has long been overly hostile, should not be excluded from American practical politics.
After repeating several times that "carefully tailored" programs would keep the religious practices of these organizations safely checked, he proposed two ways to open up practical politics to faith-based organizations.
First, he would extend charitable choice, a provision currently permitting public funds to go to faith-based welfare services, to cover faith-based solutions to crime, homelessness, and other social problems. Second, he would encourage corporations to match employee charitable gifts to religious, not just secular, charities.
The message of Gore's speech was clear: Government-run charity is basically sound, but it mustn't be exclusionary. It should allow religious organizations a piece of the pie and allow itself to be complemented by faith.
Bush's message was quite different. Not only are his policy proposals more numerous and specific, they are based on a radical idea. Government should not just include faith-based organizations. It needs to follow, support, and even court them, because they produce the best results.
Flanked by Indianapolis mayor and top adviser, Steve Goldsmith, Bush made three general proposals before hundreds of members of the Front Porch Alliance, Goldsmith's acclaimed government partnership with the faith community.
First, he would encourage giving by extending the charitable deduction to non-itemizers and instituting a tax credit that permits individuals to funnel state tax dollars to charities rather than government. Second, he would assemble "armies of compassion" from successful charities to help at-risk children and the drug-afflicted, and he would send money directly to these organizations, not to the states. Third, he would get rid of regulations that hinder religious groups from participating in the public effort to improve society.
While Gore repeatedly emphasized that religious groups not overstep their boundaries, Bush repeatedly insisted that government agencies not overstep theirs. He would even institute a faith advocate that would report to the president and ensure that faith groups are not being secularized.
At every mention of protecting religious freedom, the Indianapolis crowd, comprised mostly of interracial religious leaders, roared thunderously.
Both Bush and Gore have understood that government cannot tackle moral problems without help from religion. But Bush has understood this point more.
Faith-based groups do not need the government to legitimate them as qualified service providers. They already serve people with or without the government. They transform lives and are only interested in assistance that helps them do this. To "legitimate" them is condescending.
Across the nation, religious leaders have been sending out their own message in light of the recent public interest in government-faith partnerships: The government may need faith, but faith does not need the government. The candidate that understands this wins.
Unlike many Republicans, Bush believes that empowering charities requires government involvement, but only in a way that protects them from its intrusive character. Simply removing government does not help, a point more and more Americans are believing.
Government has a stake in promoting the common good, and because of this, it has to work with, not apart from, character-forming and value-shaping institutions.
Bush has put his Democratic opponents at a disadvantage on the values issue. Americans consistently rank the nation's moral condition among their top concerns and consider government-faith partnerships a good way to help. His Indianapolis speech has revealed the shallow nature of Gore's allegedly progressive (for a Democrat) ideas on the subject.
Bush has now outrun his GOP challengers on more than just campaign funding. He has found a way to combine an appealing confidence in government's limited role with a robust vision for local self-determination and moral well-being. If they don't respond similarly, they will be perceived to err on either side.
Ryan StreeterRyan Streeter is Vice President of Civic Enterprises, LLC, a public policy development firm in Washington, DC. Streeter was a research fellow of the Welfare Policy Center at Hudson Institute from 1998-2001.