The Compassionate Conservative Lie

The Compassionate Conservative Lie

By Ben Domenech - June 19, 2012

Former President George W. Bush policy guru Pete Wehner is very disappointed in these increasingly heartless Republicans. 

Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press released a new report measuring the values and basic beliefs of the American people. There are a lot of fascinating findings in the report, but there’s one in particular I want to focus on. The Pew survey found that just 40 percent of Republicans agree that “It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves.” In 1987, during Ronald Reagan’s second term, fully 62 percent expressed this view. For independents, the figure has dropped from 70 percent in 1987 to 59 percent today. Taken literally, this question means a solid majority of Republicans (60 percent) – as well as 41 percent of independents — don’t believe government should care for people who are suffering from dementia, Down syndrome, crippling disease, or debilitating war wounds. It would mean government has no role to play in unemployment insurance or medical coverage to low-income children. Government has no affirmative duty to care for those who are defenseless, vulnerable, handicapped, and have hit hard times through no fault of their own.

Wehner writes that “my hunch is that we’re seeing the effects of the progressive overreach”, and chides his fellow Republicans for becoming too anti-government. “Skepticism toward government is often warranted and legitimate; contempt and outright hostility are not.” But the truth that Wehner may not be willing to admit is that it was the overreach of his own faction of the party which dramatically increased the prominence of this anti-government perspective within the right’s coalition. They are in active rebellion against this type of perspective:

But to say that for government to concern itself with compassion is per se inappropriate is itself problematic. If by compassion we mean to feel distress at the suffering of others and having a desire to alleviate it, then government – within limits, with wisdom – can play a constructive role.

What a large portion of Wehner’s party recognizes today is that in application, there is nothing particularly conservative, and certainly nothing neo, about this view. It is an evangelical spin on Richard Nixon’s 1968 declaration that “By 2000 A.D., we will wage a successful war against poverty, hunger, misery, and most disease.” For translation’s sake, Nixon meant big government – the expansion or creation of Medicaid, S-CHIP, SNAP, SSI, TANF, WIC, housing assistance and LIHEAP, not to mention the EPA.

Break it down into its particular parts, and Wehner’s “compassion” represents nothing more than an empathetic case for an unalterable expansion of the entitlement state, a concentration of federal power, and a greater forced redistribution of wealth from the taxpayer to the non-taxpayer. It also helps permanently redefine the very terms of what poverty is, and what percentage of the population ought to receive assistance of some kind. This is how you end up with 41% of the children born last year being paid for by Medicaid (and the poorer the state, the higher it goes – it was 70% in Louisiana), and why people end up trapped in an entitlement ghetto from which raises costs to a prohibitive level for any exit into self-sufficiency.

What’s more, the government do-goodism Wehner favors really doesn’t do much good. Wehner acknowledges this, and blames it on a lack of competence. But it isn’t a lack of competence that made the Bush presidency only expand entitlements, not cut them. It isn’t a lack of competence that makes Medicaid’s outcomes in many cases worse than being uninsured. And it certainly wasn’t a lack of competence that made No Child Left Behind the unmitigated domestic policy failure of a candidate who promised to be “the education president”. In all cases, the problem is the fact that it was a bad policy to begin with. Smarter people than Bush education advisor Margaret Spellings, who just left Mitt Romney’s policy team in a huff over insufficiently Bush-like policies, would’ve just made it more efficiently bad.

Ironically, in embracing this expanded role of government designed to make for a larger coalition, Bush and his policy team were chipping away at their own foundation. By tugging at the heartstrings of the faithful and flaunting the limited-government philosophy of their base -- what, you don’t have compassion? -- Bush and more traditional pork barrel politicians (Hastert, Lott, Frist) drove a wedge between limited government conservatives and evangelical Christians, breaking their own coalition and planted the seeds for the demise of Karl Rove’s “permanent majority” and the rise of the tea party movement. The Republican return to Nixonian utopianism was a mission for some, an excuse for others, but an error for all.

One more point I’m reminded of by Wehner’s perspective. Today many neoconservatives defend Bush’s presidency by maintaining it would’ve been very different (implied: more conservative) if they had instead been able to concentrate on different policy areas, absent the challenge of 9/11 and war. I agree: it would’ve been worse. 

Benjamin Domenech is editor of The Transom. Click here to subscribe.

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