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The Pitfalls of Compassionate Conservatism

Mar 1, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 23 • By DAVID FRUM
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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.