The words “compassionate conservatism” sound like and have often been dismissed as political rhetoric, a construction without intrinsic meaning, the Bush campaign’s adroit way of pitching the center, allowing middle-class voters to feel good about themselves while voting their interests. Former Governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee called them “weasel words.” Joe Andrews, the national chairman of the DNC, called them “a contrived copout.” “You can’t have these massive tax cuts and at the same time…be a compassionate conservative,” Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota told The New York Times. To the extent that the words were construed to mean anything at all, then, they were misunderstood to suggest a warmer, more generous, more ameliorative kind of conservative. “I’m a conservative, and proud of it, but I’m a compassionate conservative,” Senator Orrin Hatch told Judith Miller of The New York Times in March of 1981. “I’m not some kind of ultra-right-wing maniac, despite some portrayals in the press.” Former Governor Pete Wilson of California offered a still more centrist reading: compassionate conservatism, he was quoted as saying by The Washington Post, is “old-fashioned budget-balancing with spending for preventive health measures and protection of the environment, and a strong pro-choice position on abortion.”
This suggests a pragmatic but still-traditional economic conservatism into which many Americans could comfortably buy. Yet the phrase “compassionate conservatism” describes a specific and deeply radical experiment in social rearrangement, the aim of which was defined by Governor Bush, in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention in Philadelphia, with sufficient vagueness to signal the troops without alerting the less committed: what he meant by compassionate conservatism, he said, was “to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity.” Marvin Olasky, the journalism professor at the University of Texas who has been a Bush adviser since 1993 and is the author of the seminal work on the subject, The Tragedy of American Compassion1 (this was the 1992 book that Newt Gingrich received as a Christmas present from William J. Bennett in 1994 and promptly recommended to all Republican members of Congress), and of this year’s Compassionate Conservatism,2 has been more forthright. “Compassionate conservatism is neither an easy slogan nor one immune from vehement attack,” he advises readers on page one of Compassionate Conservatism:
It is a full-fledged program with a carefully considered philosophy. It will face in the twenty-first century not easy acceptance but dug-in opposition. It will have to cross a river of suspicion concerning the role of religion in American society. It will have to get past numerous ideological machine-gun nests. Only political courage will enable compassionate conservatism to carry the day and transform America.
The source of this “river of suspicion” and these “ideological machine-gun nests” becomes clear on reading the text, which is largely devoted to detailing a 1999 road trip during which Olasky, who before “God found me and changed me when I was twenty-six” had wrestled first with atheism (“I was…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.