Where's the Compassion? Bush's 'Compassionate Conservatism' Is a Deft-And Dishonest-Strategy

By Conason, Joe | The Nation, September 15, 2003 | Go to article overview

Where's the Compassion? Bush's 'Compassionate Conservatism' Is a Deft-And Dishonest-Strategy


Conason, Joe, The Nation


"I am a fiscal conservative and a family conservative. And I am a compassionate conservative, because I know my philosophy is optimistic and full of hope for every American." So George W. Bush described himself and his beliefs on the eve of his first campaign for President. With that speech, the Texas governor hoped to finesse a paradox of national politics. To win the nomination of the Republican Party, he had to be acceptable to every kind of conservative, from the libertarian to the fundamentalist; to win the presidency itself, he also had to embody an alternative to the angry conservatism that Americans had found increasingly repellent during the Clinton years.

Moderate, suburban voters were alienated by the partisanship, self-righteous hypocrisy and antigovernment extremism of Newt Gingrich's Republican "revolutionaries." By 1999 the House Speaker's colleagues had immolated him, but his brief tenure and the impeachment fiasco he sponsored left behind a cloud of acrid smoke.

Bush and his political adviser Karl Rove knew that he could ill afford his father's mistake of alienating the far right. At the same time, they knew he had to avoid being isolated politically on the right. "Compassionate conservatism" was their answer. So deft was this gambit that it left journalists gawking and scratching their heads, as if they had witnessed the candidate literally running in two directions at once.

During the election year to come, Bush and Rove will renew the "compassionate conservatism" theme to draw independent, female and minority voters, balancing the appeal of a "wartime presidency" that is already beginning to lose its luster. The President recently returned to emphasizing buzzwords like "inclusive, positive and hopeful" in a June speech to the Urban League.

Indeed, "compassion" is a featured topic on the new website put up by Bush-Cheney '04 (www.georgewbush.com), where "news" about the President's agenda of compassion includes highlights like "President stresses importance of health and fitness." The need for such filler reflects how thin the Administration's portfolio for the poor remains. The site's most noticeable feature is a "compassion photo album" consisting almost entirely of photos of the smiling Bush with smiling black children. This is almost identical to the public-relations material Bush and his advisers rolled out during the 2000 campaign (and the minstrel-show GOP convention in Philadelphia), repackaged to remind voters that he is, or purports to be, a "different kind of Republican."

Distinguishing son from father was a process that began during George W.'s second gubernatorial campaign in 1998, with a massive wave of television advertising created by Mark McKinnon, formerly a top Democratic consultant in Austin. McKinnon honestly believed that George W. Bush was a "different kind of Republican," a bipartisan leader who cared about the poor, and that belief showed in his advertising. Later, McKinnon, Rove and other advisers developed the same themes into a more sophisticated strategy that drew from the two most successful politicians of the postwar era, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

From Reagan, the Bush advisers borrowed the friendly optimism, the down-home cowboy boots and the lavishly produced Morning in America style of advertising, which they retitled "Fresh Start." (If that sounded like a breakfast cereal or deodorant, it was entirely appropriate.) From Clinton, they adopted the supple tactics of repositioning their rhetoric toward the center and rephrasing issues to neutralize any partisan disadvantage.

This wasn't the first time, of course, that attractive branding had sold the nation a phony product. After two years of skewed tax cuts, destructive deregulation and social regression, nobody doubts Bush's conservatism. But where's the compassion?

To paraphrase a famous man, it depends on what the meaning of that word is.

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