The Magazine


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?"