The Magazine

PROMISES, PROMISES

The Pitfalls of Compassionate Conservatism

Mar 1, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 23 • By DAVID FRUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



Compassionate conservatism? Yes, one sees how the phrase might put some people's backs up. It implies that there exists some group -- presumably a large group -- perhaps even a dominant group -- of un-compassionate conservatives. After all these years of enduring that line of abuse from liberals, conservatives can be forgiven for not wanting to listen to it from the lips of one of their own -- especially if that one is the presumptive front-runner for the Republican nomination, and doubly especially if that front-runner is the son of the president who made "kinder, gentler" a euphemism for surrender on taxes and quotas.


On the other hand, it is an awfully good slogan. It takes the two most positive words in today's political vocabulary and fuses them. And why not? We already have jumbo shrimp, classic rock, and tough-minded liberalism -- why shouldn't Republicans field their own marketing oxymoron?


Lamar Alexander has denounced George W. Bush's motto as vapid. This seems a little harsh: In fact, the real trouble with the slogan is not that it means too little, but that it potentially promises too much.


That may seem to overanalyze two carefully focusgrouped little words. Unless you are Bill Clinton, however, words come with meanings already attached to them. When you use them, you commit yourself (not always completely, but often more completely than you realize) to those pre-existing meanings. Myron Magnet, editor of the redoubtable City Journal, can argue forcefully that the policies of, say, New York mayor Rudy Giuliani do more good for the poor than the policies of a David Dinkins ever could. And of course he's right. But mere efficacy does not make those policies "compassionate." It's intentions, not results, that nowadays decide whether a politician is "compassionate." Bill Clinton's bitten lip; Tony Blair's anxious face -- those are the signs of compassion, not Rudy Giuliani's safe streets and shrunken welfare rolls.


To prove himself compassionate, a politician must believe (or talk as if he believed) that individual distress is almost always a political problem. Poverty, old age, insanity, addiction, out-of-wedlock childbirth, animal abuse, the unhappiness of gay youth, the plight of women who must live in bubbles because they are allergic to all synthetic chemicals -- the compassionate politician accepts them all upon his shoulders as his responsibility. I once heard an urgently compassionate politician proclaim in a public speech that loneliness would be the next frontier in public policy-making.


Compassion in politics is an emotion of Promethean ambition. It seeks to wipe away every tear and heal every broken heart. It traffics in sentences that begin "So long as even one child . . . " and "I see an America where no one . . . " It yields magnificent political rhetoric. But alas, politics cannot wipe away every tear, cannot heal every broken heart, and politicians who suggest that it can will sooner or later discover that they have betrayed the expectations of the people who elected them. Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed in gloomy retrospect of the liberalism of the 1960s, "We constantly underestimate difficulties, over-promise results, and avoid any evidence of incompatibility and conflict, thus repeatedly creating the conditions of failure out of a desperate desire for success." There was a depressing monotony to the pattern of failure: "the bright idea, the new agency, the White House swearing in of the first agency head, the shaky beginning, the departure 18 months later of the first head, replacement by his deputy, the gradual slipping out of sight, a Budget Bureau reorganization, a name change, a new head, this time from the civil service, and slowly obscurity covers all. Who among us today could state with certainty exactly what did become of the Area Redevelopment Administration, the early, shining creation of the New Frontier?"


Promises -- expenditures -- taxes -- failure -- waste -- resentment. It was this cycle that killed the liberalism of the 1960s and brought conservatives to power. Liberals were determined to eradicate poverty, and they had learned from the experience of war how it might be done: force interest rates down to near-zero, flood the economy with liquidity, send the price of skilled labor rocketing so high that employers will seek out even the least employable, and then impose wage and price controls to squash the ensuing inflation. They were determined to end prejudice, and they thought they knew how to do that too: seat white children beside black children at the earliest possible age, by busing them into integrated schools. They were determined to transform troubled youth into useful citizens, and they hoped that by sentencing young lawbreakers to alternatives to prison they might avoid condemning them to lives of recidivism.


The people who thought these things were far from stupid, but their certainty that they had the answers and their zeal to get the job done led them to exaggerate what could be accomplished. Henry Kissinger described in 1969 to the newly elected Nixonites the arrogance of the sixties. "I saw something of the early days of the Kennedy administration. . . . At that time, the people on the White House staff wondered what they would do in the last two years of the President's term, when all the problems had been solved."


Very funny. But alas it's not an outlook to which conservatives are immune. Since 1980, conservatives have demonstrated that they have the answers to many of the country's most important problems. Curbing inflation, reducing crime, defending the country, creating jobs, raising incomes: At these great tasks and many others, conservative policies have proved fantastically successful. So successful, that it's tempting to believe we also know how to improve test scores, stabilize the American family, provide health care for all, raise the underclass to full participation in American society, absorb the new immigrants, and a dozen other wonderful things.


If there is no recession before the next election campaign begins, it will be very tempting to conservatives to make this sort of "effective compassion" the basis of our politics. What else have we got to talk about after all? There is no urgent foreign threat, none of the likely front-tier candidates shows any special zeal for reducing the size of government, and the character issue alone won't elect a president, as Bob Dole forlornly proved in 1996. There's a rich stew of non-market-oriented conservative ideas bubbling in the kitchens of the think tanks, and it is those (and not, for instance, Social Security privatization) that seem most to excite the candidates with the fat checkbooks.


As enticing as these flavorful ideas may smell, however, there is scant reason to feel fully confident that they will work as advertised. We hope they will; we have good reason to believe that they probably will; but there's a chance that they won't -- that the underclass laboriously created since 1960 won't yield to a few years of tough-love welfare policies, that bad home environments will more than outweigh any good effects of charter schooling, that tax incentives and divorce law reform will be overbalanced by the cultural trend toward family breakup, that medical savings accounts are a gimmick, not an answer. It may be that the old conservative wisdom -- that government's power to reform society is extremely limited -- applies even when it's conservatives doing the reforming.


If any of that should prove right, and some of it very likely will, then a conservative president who has promised a politics of compassion is going to discover that he has stoked expectations far beyond his ability to meet them. And he may discover something worse.


Unlike beauty, which is in the eye of each and every beholder, the adjective "compassionate" is meted out by comparatively few hands in the interest groups and the media. John O'Sullivan has pointed out that it was George W. Bush's eagerness to be saluted by Hispanic activists as "compassionate" that led him to knuckle under to bilingual education in Texas. Some similar anxiety apparently motivated Florida governor Jeb Bush to refuse to work with California's brave anti-quota activist Ward Connerly.


It's seldom a smart idea to grant one's political opponents the power to judge one's good faith, but by using their vocabulary, that's exactly what one does. When Bill Clinton wanted in 1992 to prove himself a "new" Democrat, he had to ignore his party's hatred of the death penalty and send a brain-damaged black man to the electric chair. To prove that he had remade the Labour party, Tony Blair had to accept the Tories' budget plans. If the Republicans permit the 2000 election to be turned into a referendum on which party is the more "compassionate," they will have to do what Clinton and Blair did -- enter a bidding war for the approval of people who normally dislike them. And the cost of such bids has a nasty way of turning out to be higher than it looks at first. Clinton's and Blair's ability to accomplish any of the things that their parties most cared about was hampered by the two-faced way they came to power.


As good a slogan as "compassionate conservatism" is, in other words, it might be better to look for one that actually describes -- in realistic language -- why it is that Republicans want to govern and what they will do with power if the electorate entrusts it to them. Something both attractive and achievable; modest but worthwhile. How about: "better government for less money"? It may sound like a crazy thing in this seventh year of the Clinton presidency, but there can be certain advantages to telling people the truth.




David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.