Cynical Conservatism

By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

George W. Bush entered the White House preaching "compassionate conservatism," but he may leave known for cynical conservatism. By this, I don't mean that his presidency will fail. The judgment of history, I suspect, will rest heavily on the outcomes of the struggle against terrorism and the war in Iraq, subjects about which I know no more than ordinary readers. For all the administration's miscalculations and setbacks, the ultimate results could still be more good than bad. But compassionate conservatism was never about foreign policy. It purported to be a new approach to governing at home that blended traditional values and modern sensibilities.

As a political pitch, it aimed to create a permanent Republican majority by convincing millions of centrists that conservatives had souls and that Bush himself was a new breed of moderate -- all the while without frightening the conservative Republican "base." As a governing philosophy, it suggested that Bush could pursue the goals of modern liberalism, helping the poor and promoting social justice, without forsaking the values of modern conservatism -- including individual responsibility and disciplined government. There was always an ambiguity about this brilliant phrase. Is compassionate conservatism (a) a genuine governing philosophy or (b) merely a clever sound bite?

Five years later, we know that the answer is (b). There is no obvious agenda that a successor could claim to follow as, for example, Lyndon Johnson claimed the Great Society followed the New Deal. In practice, Bush has taken the most self-serving aspect of modern liberalism (its instinct to buy public support with massive government handouts) and fused it with the most self-serving aspect of modern conservatism (its instinct to buy support with massive tax cuts).

To be fair, Bush has made some legitimate efforts to define compassionate conservatism. The No Child Left Behind Act is one. It tries, through standardized tests and achievement benchmarks, to make schools, teachers, principals and students more responsible for their own performance. The goals are difficult to achieve for many reasons: the fact that public K-12 education is mostly a state and local responsibility; the reality that learning depends on many factors beyond government control (family, innate ability, popular culture); the difficulty in crafting mass standards that are fair and appropriate for all students. Still, the experiment is worth undertaking. The same might be said for Bush's effort to enlist "faith-based" organizations in public anti-poverty campaigns, though it, too, is fraught with practical and philosophical problems.

But these programs are sideshows. "Compassion" for Bush has consisted mostly of distributing new benefits to large constituencies in the hope of purchasing their gratitude and support. He persuaded the Republican Congress (albeit with vigorous arm-twisting) to enact a Medicare drug benefit, the biggest new social program since the Great Society. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost at $851 billion from 2005 to 2015. Bush proposed not a penny of taxes to cover these immense outlays, which will continue rising after 2015. Next, he advocated "individual investment accounts" for Social Security -- a program designed to win the allegiance of younger voters by assuring them of future Social Security benefits. From 2009 to 2015, the cost could reach nearly $1 trillion, says the CBO. Bush proposed no tax increases for that either.

I think Bush's initial tax cuts were justified. Not only did he promise them in the 2000 campaign but their fortuitous timing helped prevent a deep recession. Recall all the economic threats: the popping of the stock and tech bubbles; corporate scandals; and Sept. 11. It was also inevitable that any sizable tax cut would be tilted toward the upper middle class and the wealthy, because they pay most taxes. In 2001 the wealthiest fifth of taxpayers (pretax incomes then exceeding $185,000) paid 65 percent of federal taxes, estimates the CBO; the top 1 percent (pretax incomes above $1,065,000) paid 23 percent. But as the economy revived, the tax cuts could be justified permanently only if gradually matched by spending cuts. Except in rhetoric, Bush has declined. It would seem "uncompassionate" to curtail benefits or programs, regardless of their value. Nor did he want to offend affluent supporters by trimming their tax cuts.

Spend more, tax less. That's a brazen political strategy, not a serious governing philosophy. A flimsy rationalization is that the resulting budget deficits don't immediately harm the economy. This is true. At present levels, the deficits are not as harmful as many critics contend. But note the paradox of using this as an excuse for jettisoning budget discipline. Bush has significantly raised present and future federal spending -- especially the exploding cost when baby boomers retire. Because that spending must ultimately be covered by larger deficits (which could be dangerous) or higher taxes (which could also harm the economy), the prospects for both have increased. A president who boasts of lower taxes is actually laying the groundwork for the opposite.

Now, with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, even Republican members of Congress say that borrowing should not pay for all the added costs. The White House agrees but scorns one obvious step, repealing the Medicare drug benefit (projected 2006-08 spending: $151 billion), that would make a big difference. The outlook is for tokenism. Just what conservative values Bush's approach embodies is unclear. He has not tried to purge government of ineffective or unneeded programs. He has not laid a foundation for permanent tax reductions. He has not been straightforward with the public. He has not shown a true regard for the future. He has mostly been expedient or, more pointedly, cynical.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company