John O’Sullivan’s cover story on National Review’s online magazine attempts to place George W. Bush’s presidency into a political category, and concludes that it can’t be done; rather, O’Sullivan observes, Bush’s presidency was more a reflection of his inner reflexes, for better or for worse.
All presidencies are shaped powerfully by the president’s personality. But the Bush presidency seems more personal, even impulsive, and less influenced by either party or ideology than most. In which case the quality of Bush’s personality becomes all-important. And just as compassionate conservatism lacks a guiding “governor,” so the Bush personality seems to lack a similar mechanism of impulse control. Sometimes his impulses are right, notably the surge; sometimes mistaken, notably immigration; almost always they prevail.
Which is why the best description of the Bush presidency was formulated almost 100 years ago by the great Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock: “He flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”
“Just as compassionate conservatism lacks a guiding ‘governor’” recalls the part of his analysis in which O’Sullivan critiques “compassionate conservatism” and leaves it bleeding and gasping on the floor. O’Sullivan’s criticism of compassionate conservatism suggests that it lacks any standard to limit the activism of government; that without any guiding principle, the inner impulse of the governor translate into unchecked and undisciplined spending on programs of dubious value. This strikes me as characteristic of Boomers, who are long on self-awareness and short on principle. Bill Clinton, our first Boomer President, showed us what happens when the worst of our narcissism gets unleashed on government; Bush completes the condemnation of our generation, showing us how destructive even our best impulses can be when they lack any meaningful discipline.
His critique of compassionate conservatism touched off a pretty interesting discussion in which Michael Gerson, Bush’s first chief speech writer, defends compassionate conservatism against what he regards as an historic wealth of heartless versions of conservatism, and O’Sullivan and Jonah Goldberg reply.
I found Gerson’s defense unpersuasive, but I was struck by the similarity between it and the defense of government intervention by a Christian friend of mine: “What if the people fail to meet the need? Do we just let the poor starve?” Gerson’s version goes like this:
Far from being a vague, weepy tenderness, compassionate conservatism has a rigorous definition. It teaches that the pursuit of the common good is a moral goal. It asserts that this goal is best achieved through strong families, volunteer groups and communities that all deserve legal deference and respect. But it also accepts that when local institutions fail — a child is betrayed by a consistently failing school, a state passes a Jim Crow law, a nation is helpless to tackle a treatable disease — the federal government has a responsibility to intervene. Such interventions generally are most successful when they promote individual and community empowerment instead of centralizing bureaucratic control. But when that is not possible, it is fully appropriate to send in the Army to desegregate the schools of Little Rock.
What Gerson (and my friend) describe as “compassionate conservatism,” I describe as “traditional liberalism with a preamble.” The difference between conservatism and “compassionate” conservatism is not really compassion — I’ll address that in a moment — but rather the assertion of the moral superiority of whoever runs the government, and positing the government as savior of final recourse. This is precisely what makes liberalism “liberalism:” the assertion that they (the liberals) succeed in understanding moral good where the people fail, and the assertion that government solutions produce better results than solutions that arise from the populace.
By contrast, sound conservatism understands that the people are at least as good a source of morality as the government. In the first place, the government is nothing but a reflection of the people; the likelihood that the government will embody better moral reasoning than the people who selected them is near zero, and if it occurs at all, it occurs by accident. In the second place, individuals within government are motivated by things that usually don’t affect popular efforts: lust for power, need to acquire votes and satisfy constituencies, bureaucratic turf and career protection.
This is why Gerson’s examples are bogus. The question of what to do when the people fail to produce enough compassion to meet all needs is contrived. It presupposes that there exists a morally superior elite that is uniformly and permanently capable of assessing moral need that the people are not capable of assessing. It rests entirely on a revival of the archaic notion of noblesse oblige, only instead of nobility residing in those who are born to it, it resides in those who hold the Correct Political Opinions. Should we be surprised that the person formulating this fine-sounding appeal is always a member of that elite?
Lacing Gerson’s defense, and aptly noted in Goldberg’s and O’Sullivan’s pieces, is the assertion that conservatism somehow lacks heart. That’s a libellous conceit on the part of liberals. Liberals assert that the only reason conservatives oppose their governmental programs to reduce poverty is that they hate the poor. In actual fact, conservatives oppose those policies because they love the poor, and understand that what the liberals propose will enslave and dehumanize the poor while enriching the bureaucracy.
I always took Bush’s use of the adjective “compassionate” as merely a rhetorical tactic to regain political high ground; apparently, Gerson either never saw it as that, or came to believe his own carefully-crafted rhetoric. It’s always been the case, and has lately even been established by research, that opponents of governmental charity exercise charity themselves to a greater degree than those who call on the government to do so. We even have larger-than-life public icons showcasing the difference: the last three presidential elections featured comparisons between the personal charities of Republican candidates who donate huge sums, and ponderously wealthy Democratic candidates who can barely be bothered to write a $20 check at Christmastime.
Nonetheless, President Bush apparently responded to his Evangelical impulses to help the poor, realized that he had this huge government at hand with which to do something about it, and produced a wave of government largesse as large as any we could have expected from his liberal opponents. That the Left in America can’t see Bush as anything but a conservative is remarkable; it’s fairly difficult to produce a list of conservative policies pursued by the Bush administration.
The positive achievements of the Bush administration lie in their having recognized the threat of Islamic Wahabist activism and taken strong, international measures to overcome it. Apart from that vital defense of the nation, the Bush presidency will be remembered for overspending on a series of domestic policies that could easily have been the product of a center-left President. Compassionate conservatism, requiescat in pacem. Please.