Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Why ‘compassionate conservatism’ fizzled out
Vail, CO, Colorado
Why did compassionate conservatism follow the arc of a flaming shooting star and fizzle?
During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush invited Americans to share his bright hopes about compassionate conservatism.
Promising to limit government’s cost, Bush challenged voters to endorse helping the helpless by using the private sector’s compassion. Religious organizations already fed the hungry, housed the homeless and dealt with unlucky citizens in debt. Why not have Uncle Sam ride on the back of these faith-based initiatives? As long as a church day-care center didn’t proselytize the children they cared for, they should qualify for government aid, Bush declared.
A win-win formula to heighten compassion, right? Churches get government grants for humanitarian outreach. Uncle Sam doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel of compassion. A robust economy appears because personal religious initiative replaces bureaucratic malaise and drives down the price of caring for the poor.
The Bible instructs Christians, “Finally, all of you have unity of spirit, compassion, love of the brothers and sisters in faith, a tender heart and a humble mind” (I Peter 3:8).
Bush testified how he exuded this scriptural spirit as a “uniter, not a divider.” For Christ’s sake, who could be against Uncle Sam linking arms with religious groups to foster more compassion?
So what happened to compassionate conservatism? Like a stalled car motor, it went kaput. Why?
John J. DiIulio Jr., the University of Pennsylvania professor who first ran Bush’s faith-based initiative, quit after only eight months on the job in 2001. He told friends how compassionate conservatism had been highjacked.
“There is no precedent in any modern White House for what is going on in this one,” complained DiIulio, “a complete lack of a policy apparatus. What you’ve got is everything – and I mean everything – being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”
What did DiIulio mean by “Mayberry Machiavellis?” Bush’s team tapped the nation’s financial system to fatten their wallets. They promised unparalleled prosperity without having to pay for it. They acted as naive about basic fiscal policy as Barney Fife running Sheriff Andy’s jail on the vintage TV comedy show. When the upper crust prospered at the expense of the needy, who experienced compassionate conservatism fading away, President Bush retired his rhetoric about this program uniting
relireligious and political agencies to help the poor.
The Bush II administration repeated mistakes President Ronald Reagan made. He promised large tax cuts, hefty investor income and a humming economy without deficits. Bush made the same fiscal blunders, cutting the nerve of compassionate conservatism.
At first glance, Bush’s reasoning for “supply-side economics” made superficial sense. With the 2001 tax cut, the top 5 percent of investors hiked their incomes disproportionately to the rest of the population. The White House justified these increases, arguing that those who pay the most taxes should receive the most reductions. In turn, these incentives making the rich richer would stimulate them to invest more.
These investments would create jobs which, in turn, would cause the newly employed to buy goods and increase demand on products, making the American economy skyrocket.
Bush sold this fool’s gold to the American public, which liked what glittered. What happened? As in Reagan’s presidency, Bush’s policy of making the rich extravagantly wealthy to help the poor caused gargantuan federal deficits. This massive debt forced Uncle Sam to beg China for unprecedented borrowing. Little money remained for compassionate conservatism to mend tattered lives.
Princeton University’s historian Sean Wilentz in “The Age of Reagan: A History 1974-2008” sums up the financial disaster. “By 2001, … it was perfectly understood from the experience of the Reagan years that supply-side economics was a delusion. The promise of increased investments and revenues accruing as a direct result of lowered taxes could never be a reality. The chief result of relentless, regressive tax cuts, apart from rewarding the wealthy, would be to preclude new social programs and exert pressure on existing ones.”
What have we learned from these financial debacles that sent federal deficits into the stratosphere? Such policies reduced compassion for many. It gave huge compensation increases for the few, financed by ballooning the national debt.
That’s why compassionate conservatism went kaput.
Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.