Politics & Policy

No More Mr. Nice Guy

The death of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism."

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the April 5, 2004, issue of National Review.

In his first presidential campaign, George W. Bush had a number of campaign themes. The candidate said that he was a “reformer with results” and that he would “restore honor and dignity to the White House.” The two most consistent themes, however, were associated with the catch-phrases “compassionate conservatism” and “changing the tone.” As the president prepares to start his re-election campaign, it’s fair to ask: What ever happened to this duo?

For Bush’s Democratic opponents, the answer is simple: Bush’s promises to govern compassionately and to change the tenor of American politics were misleading to the point of being lies. He has proven, in their view, to be a madly right-wing partisan. In truth, however, Bush’s style of governance has been consistent with both promises. It has also revealed their limits.

Some of the confusion stems from disagreement about what compassionate conservatism is. Whether the phrase denotes a marketing slogan or a coherent philosophy of government has been disputed from the beginning. In some quarters, the phrase was taken to suggest that Bush stood for a less conservative, or at least less controversial, conservatism. This explains some of the grievance felt by liberals who discovered that President Bush had no intention of moving leftward on abortion or guns. He might not crusade for the unborn–neither had any of his predecessors as leaders of the Republican party–but he would not retreat from longstanding Republican positions either.

The idea that Bush would retreat from these positions was largely an invention of the national media. Because most journalists assume that most Americans share their views on social issues, and that the Republican positions are therefore political poison, they read the phrase “compassionate conservatism” as the opposite of a judgmental or moralistic conservatism.

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