Spotlight Exclusives

The Demise of Compassionate Conservatism

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

“Compassionate conservatism” was largely derailed by a lack of follow through by the George W. Bush administration, the growth of the budget-focused Tea Party movement, and the radical shift in federal priorities after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, participants in an American Enterprise Institute event said Thursday.

Panelists for the session – “What Happened to Compassionate Conservatism and Can it Return?” – were pessimistic that a philosophy of empowering local, faith-based anti-poverty programs could regain its former prominence in Republican policy circles. But several pointed to efforts at the state and local level, such as experiments with Medicaid work requirements, as signs of the movement’s lasting impact.

“The brand can never come back, but the essence of it may,” said Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine and one of the intellectual architects of Bush’s 2000 campaign pledge to “rally the armies of compassion” in the fight against poverty.

Olasky said that the idea of decentralized support for faith-based anti-poverty organizations grew out of a series of policy views developed by the generation of conservatives that began coming to power in the ‘90s, including:

  • Poverty has multiple causes;
  • The federal government is not efficient in distributing resources;
  • Anti-poverty organizations based on religious principles are often more effective than government;
  • Private charities that were originally overwhelmed by the Great Depression were rescued by federal dollars, but then became mammoth and inefficient bureaucracies; and
  • Reliable funding for charity groups should not depend on money from Washington.

With House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill Clinton leading their respective parties, those principles began to be translated into actual policy between 1992 and 2000. Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the nation’s largest cash assistance program at the time, was changed to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, allowing states to experiment with work requirements and other reforms. Other policy initiatives were sprouting at the state and local level, such as in Indianapolis under then-Mayor Steve Goldsmith and in Texas under then-Governor Bush.

But while Bush entered office in 2001 with a focus on compassionate conservatism as one of his key goals, Olasky said the promises of the campaign were never truly realized. Among the reasons why, in his view, are:

  • Bush chose a Democrat, John Dilulio, to head up the new office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Olasky said Dilulio never bought into the concept of diminishing local reliance on Washington. “John was not a de-centralizer,” he said.
  • Grants to local organizations were favored over tax credits, creating controversy about religious groups getting federal outlays.
  • Once grantmaking became the focus, press coverage centered on the amount of money being spent. And when the dollar amount didn’t soar, “compassionate conservatism was seen as a hoax,” Olasky said.
  • The attacks of Sept. 11 irrevocably changed Bush’s presidency. “Bush became a war president,” Olasky said. “War and compassion don’t go together well . . . War is also expensive.”

Ryan Streeter, director of domestic policy studies at AEI and a special assistant for Domestic Policy in the Bush administration, said the movement was also weighed down by White House turf fights between factions he dubbed the reformers and the missionaries. Reformers “saw the goals as reforming public policy around the assets of local organizations,” while missionaries “wanted to get more faith-based groups involved.”

Streeter said the disagreements were never successfully bridged. “The idea that this was a movement that had reform elements kind of got overtaken . . . the idea that local actors could actually change the way that federal programs could behave got lost to some degree.”

Panelists agreed that they see little likelihood of a revival of core compassionate conservatism priorities at the national level any time soon, but noted the growing trend toward Medicaid waivers at the state level as a promising sign.

“We are seeing some resurgence from the state and local level with Medicaid waiver requests,” said Angela Rachidi, an AEI research fellow in poverty studies. “Hopefully that extends to housing and food assistance.”

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