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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Where's the Faith In This Agenda?

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Saturday, February 19, 2005; Page A31

I recently reread one of the best political speeches of the 1990s. It was powerful because the leader in question not only discussed his own views but also offered a vision of who we are as Americans.

He set his face against an empty conventional wisdom -- a "destructive mind-set" he called it -- and challenged "the idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved. An approach with no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than 'Leave us alone.' Yet this is not who we are as Americans."

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There is much of the speech I'd like to cite here, but consider just a few passages: "We have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity, both in our lives and in our laws. Americans will never write the epitaph of idealism. It emerges from our nature as a people, with a vision of the common good beyond profit and loss. . . .

"We are a nation of rugged individuals. But we are also the country of the second chance, tied together by bonds of friendship and community and solidarity. We are a nation of high purpose and restless reform, of child labor laws and emancipation and suffrage and civil rights. . . . We can, in our imperfect way, rise now and again to the example of St. Francis, where there is hatred, sowing love; where there is darkness, shedding light; where there is despair, bringing hope."

I feel like standing up and cheering, which would be unusual for me these days because the speaker is George W. Bush. He gave that speech in Indianapolis on July 22, 1999.

I was inspired to revisit Bush's famous compassion address by my friend David Kuo, who made news this week with an article criticizing the administration's failure to follow through on its faith-based agenda. "From tax cuts to Medicare, the White House gets what the White House really wants," Kuo wrote in his essay on Beliefnet.com. "It never really wanted the 'poor people stuff.' "

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, inevitably altered the administration's focus, but they cannot fully explain why the "poor people stuff" received so little attention. Since Sept. 11, Kuo notes, the administration "has pushed an ambitious domestic agenda: Three huge budgets have been submitted, each of which had billions of dollars for other domestic 'priorities' but lacked any new money to pay for 'compassion agenda' promises, which are ever more in need of fulfillment."

Kuo is not some random liberal going after Bush. He was deputy director of Bush's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and was a compassionate conservative before the comcons were cool. In fact, Kuo was one of the people who persuaded me in the 1990s to take compassionate conservatism seriously.

Kuo's approach, then and now, was to criticize liberals for failing to see the promise of religiously based social action and to criticize conservatives for indifference to the poor. For Kuo, compassionate conservatism was not a political ploy. On the contrary, he was hoping its rise would encourage a serious dialogue across the lines of party and ideology about what a serious commitment to lifting up the poor would look like.

When I asked Kuo in 1998 to write an essay for a little book I edited on community and civil society, his title was characteristic: "Poverty 101: What Liberals and Conservatives Can Learn From Each Other."

To this day, Kuo speaks warmly of the president he served. "No one who knows him even a tiny bit doubts the sincerity and compassion of his heart," Kuo wrote on Beliefnet. In a phone conversation, Kuo insisted that his essay was not anti-Bush but "in support of what Governor Bush said in 1999."

This issue is personal for me, as it is for Kuo. Over the years I have organized conferences and edited volumes on the pros and cons of government help for faith-based charity. I still hope that liberals and conservatives might someday come together in acknowledging that alleviating poverty requires the energies of both government and the charitable sector, emphatically including our religious institutions.

Unfortunately, the president's new budget moves us no closer to that happy time. It cuts programs for the poor while insisting that no tax cut for the wealthy be left behind. The politician who spoke so movingly in 1999 about our "bonds of friendship and community and solidarity" and offered "a vision of the common good beyond profit and loss" was on to something important. Whatever happened to that guy?

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