Outlook & Opinions

Compassionate conservatism

by Reihan Salam

Compassionate conservatism won George W. Bush the White House in 2000, a year Democrats should have taken in a landslide. But over the next eight years, it badly undermined the Republican reputation for competence and fiscal rectitude. Instead, the GOP came to resemble a gaggle of earmark-chasing charlatans who veered from phony compassion to get-tough border-fence theatrics with dizzying speed. Had conservatives instead built on the successes of the 1990s, things would look very different.

In his first presidential campaign, Bush wisely distanced himself from the increasingly toxic congressional conservatives who had waged war on Bill Clinton. But what he didn't do was learn from the conservative governors and mayors who had restored faith in government by successfully reforming welfare and fighting crime. One can easily imagine a conservative candidate in 2000 making the case for a new federalism or for trust-busting populism or for some other approach that promised to shift power from the nation's capital to states and citizens. Instead, Bush presented himself as a would-be healer in chief who would direct the armies of compassion from Washington, D.C.

The essential problem was that compassionate conservatism was an unstable amalgam of two very different ideas, one good and one very bad. The good idea, encouraging self-help and grass-roots entrepreneurship, was largely abandoned in favor of the bad idea, namely the embrace of central planning to raise K-12 test scores and homeownership rates, as though artificially pumping up mortgage finance bore any resemblance to encouraging real prosperity. Bailouts of Detroit and Wall Street would follow the same logic.

While compassionate conservatism elected a Republican president, it may have set the stage for an era of crony capitalism in which real entrepreneurship and growth are snuffed out for a generation.

Reihan Salam is a co-author of "Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream" and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Live Chat

Dahlia Lithwick and Reihan Salam will be online Monday to chat with readers about the torture memos, compassionate conservatism and other bad ideas from the decade that was.

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