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The Pitfalls of Compassionate Conservatism

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