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Compassionate to the End

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By Michael Gerson
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

When President Bush took his final walk to the rostrum of the House chamber, his speech and manner conveyed little nostalgia. He views both meditation on the past and speculation about his legacy with equal suspicion, preferring to live in the urgency of the now. So his last State of the Union address had no Reagan-like, misty-eyed wistfulness. It was the most matter-of-fact of his congressional addresses: a clear theme -- trusting the people -- developed at a brisk pace, with modest proposals and an edge of impatience at congressional loitering. He seemed to be saying: "With a year to go, sentiment be damned."

But there is nothing to prevent me from waxing nostalgic. Watching the speech, I recalled meeting Gov. Bush of Texas in the spring of 1999, before he was a declared candidate. He talked with rushed intensity about being a "different kind of Republican," dedicated to racial healing and helping the poor and determined to provide moral leadership as a contrast and corrective to the Clinton years. Because I believed him, I left journalism and joined his campaign.

It is conventional wisdom that Bush's idealism is either a fraud or has been pushed aside completely by the priorities of war. Slate editor Jacob Weisberg argues that Bush's claim to be a compassionate conservative is "largely fictional." A liberal organization called Americans United for Change recently promised to spend $8.5 million on political attack ads against noncandidate Bush, out of fear that Bush hatred in America might mellow during his final year as president.

But historical legacies are not determined by the same advertising techniques that sell toothpaste. And history's unhurried judgments are sometimes surprising -- few would have elevated Harry Truman to the first rank of presidents on the day Dwight Eisenhower took office.

My goal is a humbler assessment: Did President Bush, in the course of seven years, cast aside compassion and become the "same kind of Republican"?

The answer is no. Proposals such as No Child Left Behind, the AIDS and malaria initiatives, and the addition of a prescription drug benefit to Medicare would simply not have come from a traditional conservative politician. They became the agenda of a Republican administration precisely because of Bush's persistent, passionate advocacy. To put it bluntly, these would not have been the priorities of a Cheney administration.

This leaves critics of the Bush administration with a "besides" problem. Bush is a heartless and callous conservative, "besides" the 1.4 million men, women and children who are alive because of treatment received through his AIDS initiative . . . "besides" the unquestioned gains of African American and Hispanic students in math and reading . . . "besides" 32 million seniors getting help to afford prescription drugs, including 10 million low-income seniors who get their medicine pretty much free. Iraq may have overshadowed these achievements; it does not eliminate them.

The Bush administration, in my view, should have devoted more resources and creativity to its faith-based initiatives. It should not have vetoed the State Children's Health Insurance Program expansion. The president's budget and economic teams have not been populated with enthusiastic compassionate conservatives, and sometimes this has shown. But by any fair historical measure, Bush's achievements on social justice at least equal those of Bill Clinton, who increased the earned-income tax credit, pushed for children's health coverage and reformed welfare to encourage work.

Bush has received little attention or thanks for his compassionate reforms. This is less a reflection on him than on the political challenge of compassionate conservatism. The conservative movement gives the president no credit because it views all these priorities -- foreign assistance, a federal role in education, the expansion of an entitlement -- as heresies, worthy of the stake. Liberals and Democrats offer no praise because a desire to help dying Africans, minority students and low-income seniors does not fit the image of Bush's cruelty that they wish to cultivate.

Compassionate conservatism is thus a cause without a constituency -- except for the large-hearted man I first met in 1999 and who, on Monday night, proposed to double global AIDS spending once again.

But it was only a hint of his former boldness. On policy, this State of the Union was the least ambitious effort of an ambitious presidency. Given the short calendar and a hostile Congress, there was no other option. The time for boldness has passed. But in his speech he seemed his same, confident self. And one source of his confidence should be this: His achievements are larger than his critics understand.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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