Politics & Policy

The Rise of Uncompassionate Conservatism

Bush would never make it in today’s GOP.

The Republican noncandidate flavor of the week is Texas governor Rick Perry. If you squint just right, you could mistake him at a podium for his predecessor, George W. Bush. Except for his message.

There might be no more powerful symbol of the death of compassionate conservatism in the Republican party than Bush’s successor and former running mate in Texas stomping all over it with cowboy boots emblazoned with the words “Freedom” and “Liberty.”

Bush rose from Texas to the national stage in 1999 talking of his federal education agenda, the courage of single mothers, the power of drug and alcohol recovery programs, and the need for government to forge partnerships with faith organizations. Perry is emerging from Texas talking of the 10th Amendment, cutting government, defending freedom — and defending freedom some more.

Bush spoke in dulcet tones. He separated himself from the firebrand politics of Newt Gingrich and even took a swipe at the insufficiently cheerful Robert Bork. Perry is telling Republicans to stop apologizing and elect more conservatives. He’s Rick Perry, and he’s from the Republican wing of the Republican party.

The backlash against Bush has long been brewing. Compassionate conservatism was a product of the moment when Bush began to run for president in the late 1990s. The congressional wing of the party had immolated itself in the government-shutdown fights and then the impeachment of Bill Clinton. A rebranding was in order, and Bush wanted to signal to general-election voters that they needn’t fear him.

Bush-style conservatism never really took with the broader party, although it gained acquiescence. The president usually gets his way with his congressional majority, so Bush could push through No Child Left Behind and the prescription-drug benefit. The war on terror and the Left’s hatred for him bonded conservatives to Bush whatever their misgivings. The nomination of John McCain — himself no down-the-line conservative — obscured the anti-Bush feeling.

Now, it’s in full flower and evident on all fronts, from spending and immigration to foreign policy, as Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns point out in Politico. Running on his message circa 1999, George W. Bush would be hard-pressed to gain traction in the current Republican party. Running on his record circa 2008 — the spending programs, the bailouts, the attempted amnesty and the two ongoing “hearts and minds” wars of counterinsurgency — he’d be booed from the stage. If Michele Bachmann didn’t drop-kick him off it first.

The Bush Republican party had grown flaccid and deserved to be trounced and built anew. But Bush had two insights. He realized that the party had to win over the center as well as the right, and that unadulterated doctrine would appeal most only to the doctrinaire. If Rick Perry thinks the 10th Amendment is going to have cachet with voters worried about their jobs, their wages, and the value of their homes, he’s been spending too much time at Federalist Society seminars.

On top of everything else, compassionate conservatism reflected the prosperity of the 1990s. As a candidate, Bush sometimes seemed to forget that economic self-interest trumps all else. In this economy, Republicans would be suicidal ever to forget that. Even as he preaches the old-time religion, Perry in his proto–stump speech returns again and again to a highly practical theme: his success in fostering a pro-jobs environment in Texas. Republicans may feel no need to be “compassionate” in the Bush sense — defensively vouching for their own good intentions — but they need to connect their agenda to their solicitude for the livelihoods of voters.

As the press clues into the new anti-Bush drift of the GOP, we can expect a revival in Bush’s reputation. He will be portrayed as more reasonable, more internationalist, and altogether more statesmanlike than his benighted compatriots. If only it were still the party of George W. Bush will be the lament. And it will make the party even more glad that it’s not.

— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.

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