Reflecting on the recent GOP candidates debate, EJ Dionne finds himself nostalgic for W, or at least for the once-upon-a-time candidate W and a Republicanism that saw good politics in poses of compassion: “Unlike this crowd of Republicans Bush acknowledged that the federal government can ease injustices and get useful things done.” Dionne goes on to emphasize that Compassionate Conservatism was not, and could never have been, exclusively propaganda. He describes No Child Left Behind and Medicare Part D as serious and bipartisan pieces of legislation, however flawed, and he might have added the failed effort on Comprehensive Immigration Reform to the list.
The Bush Administration’s prosecution of the War on Terror was generally framed in much the same way: It was supported at least at first by bipartisan majorities in Congress and the electorate as “the federal government get[-ting] useful things done” – those useful things including an easing of “injustices” in the Islamic world and a fervently supported smiting of the 9/11 evil-doers and fellow travelers. Even what are now widely seen as the greatest domestic failings of the Bush years, the diverse sins of commission and omission underlying the financial crisis, were similarly bipartisan affairs, and were sustained because they seemed, among other things, to deliver the goods to people who needed homes, and to other people who needed jobs building, selling, furnishing, and servicing them.
If the bubble economy including its catastrophic deflation also made many people very rich for few good reasons and many bad ones, that result also remains an American one, at least as Americanism in the Age of Reagan has been understood. Under American ideology, the failure of the economic system always to reward moral excellence with riches and sin with poverty is a matter for priests and philosophers, not for politicians or bureaucrats. What’s changed, in Dionne’s view, is that the R Party has apparently lost interest in appealing to residual liberal-progressive impulses in the electorate, including the ones that firmly if somewhat passively support the social insurance programs that Americans enjoy in the place of European-style social democracy:
I cannot imagine a Republican today giving Bush’s 1999 speech in Indianapolis titled — shades of Barack Obama? — “The Duty of Hope.”
Bush criticized the view “that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved” as a “destructive mind-set.” He scorned this as an approach having “no higher goal, no nobler purpose, than ‘Leave us alone.’ ”
On the contrary, Bush declared: “We have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity, both in our lives and in our laws.” Amen. A Republican who expressed such sentiments today would be pummeled mercilessly by Fox News.
Dionne falls freshly for one of Karl Rove’s oldest tricks: that of recognizing one’s greatest political weakness — in 1999 and 2000, Rove saw it in his party and candidate’s debilitating compassion-deficit — and then, out of whole rhetorical cloth, simply declaring the opposite to be one’s greatest strength. Thus George W., who cared deeply about further comforting his own socioeconomic class, became the working class’ “compassionate conservative.”
As proof of Bush’s sincerity, Dionne, for evidential reasons unknown, quotes from a Bush speech, from 1999: “We have always found our better selves in sympathy and generosity, both in our lives and in our laws.” To this, Dionne remarks, “Amen.” My response would be somewhat less favorable: “Bullshit.” Classic Barnum-Bushian bullshit, that is, QED.
Yet even if Carpenter is right, and even if there was really nothing and less than nothing to Bush-Rovian “compassion,” Dionne’s point would stand, and it would still say something about where we are in 2011 that a major political party, one of only two, sees no need even to pay homage to the social virtues.