Bush can still win

But only if he is bold and gets specific about his vision

Issue: "Beating the school rules," Sept. 23, 2000

Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, a friendly newsmagazine competitor of ours, proclaimed earlier this month that George W. Bush should downplay compassionate conservatism because it produces votes only when you're ahead. Mr. Kristol has it backwards: Politically, compassionate conservatism is what allows the GOP to come from behind. Republicans have been behind ever since the 1930s, when Democrats grabbed a reputation as the party that cared about the poor. Republicans had good constitutional rationale for opposing the New Deal, but they seemed all mind and little heart to those desperate for a way to rise above fear itself. Ever since then America has had more Democrats than Republicans: The GOP has been able to win the White House about 40 percent of the time (when foreign-policy concerns were prominent) and Congress under rare circumstances, but it's always been an uphill fight. Bill Clinton lowballed it to the White House with his yeomen telling themselves that "It's the economy, stupid," but the winning party has generally been the one that could claim the high moral ground. That's why Joe Lieberman's talk of God, which helps voters forget Bill Clinton's ungodly activity, has been so fruitful for Al Gore. Republicans can't win if this becomes a dollars-and-cents election after years of a booming economy: Mr. Gore can offer more sets of voters more bribes. Compassionate conservatism is only worth pursuing if it brings effective help to the poor and downtrodden, but it secondarily helped the poor, downtrodden GOP recover from 1996 and 1998 election troubles. If George W. Bush runs a full-bore compassionate conservative campaign he can win this election, because that doctrine defines not only effective poverty-fighting but much else besides. Mr. Bush should talk about the people who show compassion toward children trapped in bad public schools by sacrificially working to create religious and private schools; our cover story this week provides a good example. Educational pioneers would be helped by tax credits (as in Arizona) for contributions to private and religious schools. Mr. Bush should also back the educational choice referendum on the ballot in Michigan. That push for vouchers has strong support among Catholics and minority groups as well as white evangelicals. Nationally, support for vouchers could hurt the GOP in California and some other liberal states that Mr. Bush will not win anyway. But in the crucial Midwest battleground, support for vouchers would show George W.'s willingness to take on bureaucracies in order to suffer with those who need help. Mr. Bush should talk about showing compassion toward the child who is two-thirds of the way to being born until an abortionist punctures his skull. Abortion is a losing issue for the GOP only if the pro-life side is identified with attacks on abortionists; Al Gore and Joe Lieberman's defense of partial-birth abortion shows the extremism of a Democratic ticket misidentified by media hacks with moderation. Mr. Bush has regularly said that he is pro-life, and I believe he is sincere in that, but he can do good while doing well politically if in debates he espouses a compassionate pro-life conservatism that cares for both troubled mother and unborn child. Mr. Bush should extend compassionate conservative ideas in other ways as well: In foreign policy, for example, the doctrine points toward choosing involvements that further both national security and religious liberty. But here's the bottom line, politically: If this is purely an "issues-driven" campaign, Al Gore can out-wonk him. If it's a "what government can do for you" campaign, Al Gore can outspend him. And if it's merely a personality-driven campaign, we now need to take into account voters turned on by the Gore kiss or turned off by the Bush smirk. But if this campaign becomes vision-driven, and if Mr. Bush emphasizes the crucial importance of tough-minded, warm-hearted compassion in governing, Al Gore is in a quandary, because the big government approaches he supports embody entitlement and bureaucracy rather than challenge and personal help. With Ralph Nader still at his left elbow, Mr. Gore cannot say that he supports religious free speech in all programs, or else his secular liberal base will become irate. Mr. Gore cannot support educational choice, or else his teachers union allies will slap his palm with a ruler. Nor can Mr. Gore at this point break away from pro-abortion extremism. At every opportunity the Bush campaign needs to emphasize the difference in vision. Mr. Bush did this well in an Indianapolis speech last year and his GOP convention speech this year, but sometimes he has been content to utter the words compassionate conservative or pro-life and leave them undefined. Compassionate conservatism can win this election for the GOP, but only if its across-the-board substance is emphasized.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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