The False Promise of Compassionate Conservatism

The False Promise of Compassionate Conservatism

By Ben Domenech - August 7, 2013

Matt Lewis offers a useful critique of libertarian populism which argues for a rediscovery of compassionate conservatism. “Ultimately, the problem is that libertarian populism will not work at the ballot box. As I have written before (the case for compassionate conservatism), there is a reason why Bush won two national elections. (How many presidential elections have Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot, or Ron Paul won?) Compassionate conservatism has gotten a bum rap, and the name may be permanently tarnished (tied to big government, big spending, foreign entanglements), but none of these things are inherently related to an optimistic brand of conservatism favored by men like Jack Kemp and Ronald Reagan.”

This seems reasonable on its face, and a lot of conventional thinkers in Republican circles have adopted this line of argument. But in order to maintain that compassionate conservatism is the key for a Republican comeback, I believe you must believe three things: first, that compassionate conservatism was key to Bush’s electoral success; second, that it can be replicated in future elections; and third, that as a governing philosophy, it can be implemented without breaking the coalition which put it in power. I think the answer to all three is dubious at best.

First, was compassionate conservatism key to Bush’s success? The typical line is that compassionate conservatism inoculated Bush from being just another coldhearted Republican – an indication that he cared about people, unlike the rest of the GOP. Henry Olsen at AEI has said this line a few times, pointing out how upside down Mitt Romney was in a similar exit polling statistic. But Bush only won the popular vote in 2004, so let’s consider that election for a moment – in fact, he lost the “cares about you” portion of the vote by 75-24 to man of the people John Kerry. He also lost by similar portions among people who placed issues like Education and Health Care near the tops of their priority list, despite passing two compassionate conservative policies in No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Part D entitlement expansion.

Second, when it comes to replication: If you believe, as I do, that the 2004 election was more about patriotic nationalism in the wake of 9/11 and in the context of war against Islamist terrorism, Republicans may not win until a similar challenge emerges which unites the old Cold War era fusionism. Back to the exits: What category of voter did Bush win overwhelmingly? The 19% of the electorate who said Terrorism was the most important issue, and the 22% of the electorate who said Moral Values was the most important – Bush won both with more than 80%. Moral Values could mean compassion, sure – but isn’t it more rational that in this case, the term was a stand-in for Karl Rove’s sweeping campaign of anti-gay marriage state initiatives which did their job of driving social conservative evangelicals to the polls… almost certainly a bit of political ju jitsu that will never be replicated?

Third, when it comes to the governing philosophy portion: as I’ve written before, the compassionate conservative failure of paternalistic governance doesn’t work in the long term because it undermines the coalition which put it in power in the first place. The most compassionate conservative governor at the moment is the fairly popular John Kasich, whose full-throated endorsement of Obama’s Medicaid expansion has been blocked at each turn by fiscal conservatives in the statehouse. Kasich is now pushing for a ballot issue to do an end-run around the conservatives and expand the worst-performing government entitlement system in the country, already prompting a backlash among his base. Similar backlashes at the national level led to a decline in Republican identification among fiscal conservatives, the 2006 election, and the rise of the Tea Party.

In impact, compassionate conservatism thus amounts to little more than a bidding war over who can run the life of Julia more efficiently and inexpensively – a busybody politics, as Thomas Sowell describes it, of soft technocracy. “Whether in housing, education or innumerable other aspects of life, the key to busybody politics, and its endlessly imposed “solutions,” is that third parties pay no price for being wrong. This not only presents opportunities for the busybodies to engage in moral preening, but also to flatter themselves that they know better what is good for other people than these other people know for themselves.”

The difficulty in advancing compassionate conservative paternalism is exacerbated in a post-Iraq, post-Katrina, post-TARP environment where Republicans are viewed even more as a party of incompetent administrators who are no longer the adults in the room. Perhaps it would be more profitable to pursue a line of argument which argues that individuals are better off pursuing the lives they want for themselves, free of busybodies of either stripe, than the argument that Republicans will be better busybodies than the Democrats. It is at least something to consider. 

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

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