What is Compassionate Conservatism?

Columnist Peggy Noonan recently quoted a journalist saying that the expansion of federal entitlement spending during the past five years should come as no surprise, since George W. Bush "ran as a compassionate conservative." Noonan’s frustrated reaction: "This left me rubbing my brow in confusion. Is that what Mr. Bush meant by compassionate conservatism?"

I don’t think so, judging by several conversations then-Gov. Bush and I had in Texas during the 1990s. At that time, compassionate conservatism was about neither government growth nor budget-cutting. Instead, it was a different way of looking at what government should do, what "civil society" — religious and civic groups — should do and what individuals should do.

Democrats had equated compassion for the poor with government poverty-fighting expenditures: Vote against my spending bill and you’re hard-hearted. They maintained that position even though entitlement programs did more harm than good when they enabled and even encouraged people to cease efforts.

Republican critics of those programs had repeatedly made the mistake of implying that welfare programs were fine except for their expense: I’m for your bill, but let’s cut the outlay by 10 percent. Welfare programs were expensive, but this affluent country could afford them. The real cost was multigenerational welfare dependency.

Republicans and others needed to understand that the welfare state was not extravagant, but stingy. The welfare state gave the needy bread and told them to be content with that alone. The welfare state gave the rest of us the opportunity to be stingy also. We could salve our consciences even as we scrimped on what many of the destitute needed most — challenging, personal and often spiritual help.

One compassionate conservative goal was to encourage average citizens to help the poor directly, instead of handing off all the responsibility to government officials. Another goal was to end government discrimination against faith-based groups that were often the most effective poverty-fighters. Those goals were both expenditure-neutral: They suggested neither bigger nor smaller budgets, but a different way of spending.

George W. Bush unveiled his understanding of compassionate conservatism in a July 1999 speech that cited the Front Porch Alliance in Indianapolis as "the way things out to be." The FPA was primarily a city government’s attempt to help church groups cut through red tape. Example: One pastor wanted to turn a hooker-used alley across from his church into a park. Because of bureaucratic reasons, 51 different government agencies and private groups had to sign off on the alley-to-park conversion. The FPA helped the pastor get that done, and prostitution took a hit.

The president-to-be continued: "Government can spend money, but it can’t put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. This is done by churches and synagogues and mosques and charities that warm the cold of life." He announced his basic principles: First, "resources should be devolved, not just to states, but to charities and neighborhood healers." Second, "We will never ask an organization to compromise its core values and spiritual mission to get the help it needs."

He emphasized, in short, the importance of religious groups being religious. They would not have to become government look-alikes to gain access to resources. He specified a good way to decentralize: "We will provide for charity tax credits."

In practice, most resources have not been devolved, and charity tax credits were left behind amid early-2001 rapture about tax cuts. Still, good things are happening. President Bush recently signed an executive order creating a faith-based office in the Department of Homeland Security, and maybe it will shred the red tape that hindered religious and civic groups following Hurricane Katrina.

At the state and local levels, 32 governors and over 115 mayors have established their own offices for faith-based and community initiatives. If they are Front Porch Initiatives, great. If they contribute to decentralization, great. If they are pork-barrel projects, not great. But it’s springtime, and optimism can still bloom.