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July 21, 2006

Who Killed Compassionate Conservatism?

Over at the Drum Major Institute, Elana Levin flags down a great Washington Post story chronicling the Bush administration's vow of silence and oath of inaction on poverty in America. At least they're getting zen about it. As the article explains, that glorious post-Katrina speech when Bush mounted the podium to have his Lyndon Johnson moment was just that -- a moment, never to be repeated, remembered, or referenced by the administration again.

But the roots of the Bush administration's betrayal on poverty reach far beyond Katrina. Compassionate conservatism, after all, was once more than an empty catch phrase, it described a policy philosophy that sought economic uplift through government incentives. Myron Magnet, author of the foundational compassion conservative work The Dream and the Nightmare, met with Bush repeatedly during the campaign, and visitors to Karl Rove's office used to leave with a copy of the book in hand -- according to Rove, it laid out the campaign's roadmap. So when Magnet assured us that "At [Bush's compassionate conservatism's] core is concern for the poor —not a traditional Republican preoccupation —and an explicit belief that government has a responsibility for poor Americans," it was safe to assume he knew what he was talking about.

Only he didn't. Compassionate conservatism retained only its disinterest in small government conservatism. As the years ground excruciatingly onward and the Bush administration's domestic policy priorities crystallized, it became screamingly clear that this administration was corporatist, not conservative in nature -- theirs was a philosophy of industrialist, not indigent, uplift. It didn't have to be that way: Bush's early moves were promising, with No Child Left Behind a flawed but supportable attempt at codifying equality in our schools. After 9/11, though, the war president killed the poor's president, and Bush turned his already-meager interest in the mechanics of governing entirely away from domestic issues.

I've never been entirely convinced by the explanations for why that happened. Bush's record in Texas and his rhetoric on the campaign trail never suggested the sort of leader that would emerge. 9/11 changed him, but it's not precisely clear why it enabled such an abandonment of the domestic realm. I will, in the interest of debate, offer this thesis, which I find interesting if not convincing. I've adapted it from something Grover Norquist said at the Prospect breakfast: He argued that the high poll numbers of 9/11 straitjacketed the administration, leaving them terrified of downward drift. So in their efforts to retain 80 percent approval ratings, they refused to engage in the sort of divisive, unpopular fights needed to actualize their agenda. They just went with the interest groups as the path of least resistance, And by the time they were ready for domestic policies again, they couldn't afford to split the coalition. Compassionate conservatism died because Bush became popular and wasn't willing to sacrifice that support for issues beneath War and Peace.

Is that true? I've no idea. But what is true, and under-discussed, is that the Bush administration we got looked nothing like the Bush administration we were promised. Compassionate conservatism, at its core, was a blueprint for a Republican war on poverty. After NCLB, it was ignored. And nobody has been able to convincingly explain why. Bush did, once, have a voice on poverty. Turned out that was all he wanted.

Crossposted at Tapped

July 21, 2006 | Permalink


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The only error I see in Norquist's analysis is the presumption that Bush and Rove and Cheney *ever* had any kind of a policy agenda that would have been compassionate, or conservative, in the first place. Compassionate conservatism didn't "die because bush became popular and wasn't willing to sacrifice that support for issues beneath war and peace" it simply never existed as other than a campaign slogan to fool the rubes. It was designed to fool some republicans and democrats-- the ones who wanted to come for the tax cuts but were uncomfortable staying for the bigotry. Nothing in Bush, Cheney, Rove, or Rumsfeld's personal and political history ever indicated the slightest interest in public welfare in its broadest sense. Hell, they routinely deride the very concept of the public sphere, the public good, and the public person in favor of privatization and fear as the motivating forces in the world.

But in any event, go back and look at the books that came out about the period prior to 9/11 that dealt with what you are postulating as the "real" bushian agenda. Tell me how many initiatives did bush propose, or did he have in hand, that represented anything compassionate or even domestic prior to 9/11? As I recall he was eager for tax cuts, and we were being put on a war footing, and he wanted to get home for his big vacation. That is it.


Posted by: aimai | Jul 21, 2006 12:20:16 PM

Bush's record in Texas and his rhetoric on the campaign trail never suggested the sort of leader that would emerge.

Rubbish. His record in Texas contradicted his rhetoric on the campaign trail.

Texas was lead horse in the race to the bottom in the '90's and anyone not living in a cave -- or relying on the major media -- during the 2000 campaign knew it

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Jul 21, 2006 12:21:49 PM

"It was designed to fool some republicans and democrats-- the ones who wanted to come for the tax cuts but were uncomfortable staying for the bigotry."

Absof*&kalutely correct! And what Davis said, too. Anyone with half a brain (even Terry Schiavo) could have figured that Bushco was all about the money - privatizing govt functions for free-booting cronies and war mongering for war-profiteers.

Posted by: CParis | Jul 21, 2006 12:28:56 PM

I just disagree with that. The Bushies had something real there, in the faith-based programs, and NCLB, and Housing First. And to some degree, they delivered on NCLB and Housing First. But those ended up being one-offs rather than genuine expressions of a governing philosophy.

Posted by: Ezra | Jul 21, 2006 12:31:15 PM

Hate to be a "hater", but NCLB can be viewed as the way to dismantle public schools and move to for-profit institutions. Faith-based programs were a big money grab by AmTaliban and other preachers as a payoff for voter turnout (lots of "faith" organizations were doing good work before, just not evangelizing and discriminating while doing it).

Posted by: CParis | Jul 21, 2006 12:55:05 PM

Are you sure about that? See http://www.heritage.org/Research/Budget/loader.cfm?url=/commonspot/security/getfile.cfm&PageID=93690

Posted by: ostap | Jul 21, 2006 12:58:12 PM

UH, Ezra, Bush did NCLB with the help of Kennedy and then proceeded to gut the intent of it all on his own. There is simply no way that NCLB can be viewed as other than another bait and switch moment in compassionate conservatism. As for faith based programs? that is and has been shown to be nothing more than the most hideously transparent (and sucessful) attempt to funnel public monies to private religious entities in return for public support and votes.


Posted by: aimai | Jul 21, 2006 1:20:35 PM

9/11 had nothing to do with it. Tax cuts above all else policy set well before then. Bush himself (and wife) may personally have been interested in some small compassionate conservatism programs, particularly education (NCLB) and giving more federal dollars to christian groups. However, the "competent" grownups that actually run the administration are only interested in the corporatist agenda - tax cuts for the rich, tax cuts for corporations, less regulation and oversite, more corporate welfare and handouts and no bid/no oversite contracts. And all this was in place and being done before 9/11. 9/11 changed no policy, it just enabled them to do it more due to higher support due to rally round the flag effect.

Posted by: Steve | Jul 21, 2006 1:27:14 PM

Follow (and count) the money: Remember that the total dollars devoted to compassionate conservatism are less than trivial. I work for a federal agency HRSA whose community health centers were (are) a part of the compassionate conservatism rhetoric. The increase in dollars devoted to doubling the number of primary care access points was both trivial, and came not from new dollars but from reductions in other worthwhile programs (rb peter to pay paul). Total dollars for all these programs was trivial compared to tax cuts, and the rest of the corporatist agenda.

Posted by: anon | Jul 21, 2006 1:28:08 PM

re: "Compassionate conservatism, at its core, was a blueprint for a Republican war on poverty. After NCLB, it was ignored."

Are you sure about that? I've read that anti-poverty spending under Bush,from 2001 - 2005 went up 39%
whereas inflation during that time was 10% and the population grew by 4%. Anti-poverty spending now consumes 16% of the budget.

Source: OMB Historical tables

Regards, HM

Posted by: HM | Jul 21, 2006 1:35:57 PM

HM, please be more specific. I just looked through the OMB historical tables and can't find an "anti-poverty spending" category.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Jul 21, 2006 2:24:16 PM


See p. 10 of http://www.heritage.org/Research/Budget/loader.cfm?url=/commonspot/security/getfile.cfm&PageID=93690

Sources are at the bottom of the page.

Posted by: ostap | Jul 21, 2006 2:56:55 PM

Hi Antid Oto
My mistake, I should have been more specific.
Please see: http://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/budget/fy2007/hist.html

The info I saw referenced tables 3.2 and 8.5.
budget functions 604, 605, 609 and Medicaid + S-CHIP

Regards, Hank

Posted by: HM | Jul 21, 2006 3:05:22 PM

Of course anti-poverty spending went up since 2001. More people are poor now, incomes for the bottom 95% have not increased, costs have skyrocketed.

Posted by: CParis | Jul 21, 2006 3:15:09 PM

My theory is compassionate conservativism simply means you kill the puppy before eating it, rather than eating it alive.

Posted by: Raznor | Jul 21, 2006 3:45:37 PM


Davis is right. NCLB has always been soaring rhetoric hiding a cynical scheme to get away with punishing public schools and reducing their federal funding.

Bush contradicted himself and his record constantly. Don't you remember the credit that he took for the Patients' Bill of Rights? He vetoed it and when the Texas legislature overrode his veto he allowed it to become law without his signature. Then during the campaign he claimed credit for its creation and passing.

Oh, but the press was too worried about Al Gore's pants color and how he "invented the internet."

Hmm. Soaring rhetoric hiding a cynical scheme. Why, that describes all of Bush's initiatives!

Posted by: Stephen | Jul 21, 2006 4:11:23 PM

The big-ticket items there aren't exactly discretionary. About half the increase seems to come from Medicaid, which probably just reflects rising healthcare costs and increased numbers of people eligible. Same with food stamps--just more people eligible. The biggest single element of housing assistance is Section 8 vouchers, and those rise automatically with rising housing costs.

Anti-poverty spending may have increased, but it appears to have done so largely by inertia. Incidentally, in those programs I have checked in the past, what has often happened is that the president proposes big cuts that don't get enacted. It's not like he's trying to expand poverty programs.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Jul 21, 2006 8:15:57 PM

As soon as I read Ezra's post, I leaped to the comments. Thak goodness cooler heads arrived earlier. I was preparing my argument around the rhetorical centerpiece "horseshit", but I see now that Davis X. Machina' "rubbish" is a better choice.

There is SO much wrong with the Common Knowledge that Bush's performance in the White House is shockingly at odds with his record as Governor of Texas. See Molly Ivins for details.

As for NCLB, don't get me started. It would be evil even if it were fully funded. Kennedy was played like a fiddle on that one, and it makes me crazy to hear a smart guy like Ezra humming the tune.

Posted by: de Selby | Jul 22, 2006 2:06:47 AM

I also disagree, Ezra: Bush's record in Texas suggested what would happen to his domestic agenda. He never really developed the "compassionate conservativism" here, but his record suggestion just how important it was to him (not very).

He was first elected governor by attacking women, specifically poor women and families, promising to roll back AFDC payments. Then, he was forced to fund health care more of Texas impoverished children rather than give tax cuts. Texas already had a regressive tax system, and his 1997 proposals would have made it even worse.

Children and families were not his priority in his Texas.

Bush's momentary voice on poverty was bound to be sidetracked by nearly anything.

The thing to keep in mind is "compassionate conservativism" was a way to make cuts into social programs palatable. He couldn't vent against welfare mothers as he did in 1994.

I think your question about what changed in Bush applies to his abandonment of fiscal conservativism. I think his record as president and governor very much challenges the suggestion that Bush is driven by ideas. He's just not that consistent.

Posted by: Tx bubba | Jul 22, 2006 3:57:43 PM

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