The debate is on. Columnist Jonah Goldberg was one of many conservatives late in September attacking Bush administration post-Katrina spending plans by stating, "Here's my silver-lining hope this hurricane season: George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism gets wiped out like a taco hut in the path of a Cat. 5 storm."
Mr. Goldberg wrote that President Bush is "determined to prove he cares about black people, and 'hurt' people, by spending more than the other guys." But spending big and never vetoing bills has nothing to do with compassionate conservatism, according to speakers at the First International Conservative Conference on Social Justice, convened at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Sept. 27.
Anxiety about how compassionate conservatism might inflate government showed itself early. The first audience question came from a man asking whether conservatives, now in power, had adopted "social justice" as a justification for continuing big government.
Panelist Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, gave a partial response: "Seeking to stop sexual trafficking is not socialism. Seeking to persuade the Chinese government not to arrest and torture Catholic bishops is not socialism. There are other dimensions we could argue about, but here we're dealing with questions of social justice which are not addressed by markets."
The most complete defense came from U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who acknowledged that his fellow Republicans "have not reduced the size of government. . . . Pork-barrel and self-interest politics have grown. Special interest groups haven't been defeated or tamed, they are thriving."
Compassionate conservatism, he pointed out, "is still an emerging philosophy. It hasn't ever been tried as a governing philosophy." Passion for that philosophy has dipped among Republicans in the White House and Congress as war and other matters grabbed attention. "For some this lack of action has meant discouragement and for others it has meant cynicism," said Sen. Santorum. "But the truth is that this compassionate conservative philosophy is the only viable conservative philosophy we Republicans possess."
But if compassionate conservatism is not about "spending more than the other guys," what is it about? "Compassionate conservatism believes in the transformative power of faith and the integral role of charities, houses of worship, and other civil institutions," said Mr. Santorum. "If government is to be effective, these institutions must be respected and nurtured rather than overpowered or effectively controlled by government." Societies, he said, deteriorate absent freedom of religion and effective mediating institutions. In creating large government bureaucracies, he argued, Democrats displaced the work that religious groups historically have done and done well.
Republicans also have failed-"Too many of my colleagues act as if poverty doesn't exist"-and not all Democrats have tried to minimize religion's role: Mr. Santorum last week planned to reintroduce the CARE (Charity Aid, Recovery and Empowerment) Act, with Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.). The bill increases charitable tax deductions and clears away roadblocks to faith-based organizations providing social services. New impetus could come from the swift faith-based response to Hurricane Katrina.
Demonstrating that compassionate conservatism can do even more if given the opportunity is the challenge its defenders face now. The left's vast government programs have failed, but they have retained their "moral superiority," former British Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith said. David Willetts, another Conservative Party member of parliament, also warned conservatives that after decades of governmental growth the alternative needs more than just a few years of development: "We need to think of the demand for government. We need to think of why, when you have fragmented societies . . . people turn to government."
Some of the Heritage conference panelists emphasized that equally important is explaining what conservative social justice means: not denying help, but rendering it differently. The "very young, the very old, the very disabled and the very sick will always need help, and conservatives must be honored to provide it," Mr. Duncan Smith said. "Only when we are known to be proud to give them help will many people be proud to stand beneath our political colors."
Progress with principle
The week before his defense of compassionate conservatism at the Heritage Foundation, Sen. Rick Santorum also took the lead in advocating federal funding for research into adult stem cells-a stand in contrast to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's controversial support for increasing funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
"For the record, I am for stem-cell research," the Catholic lawmaker wrote in the Sept. 23 Roll Call, "and understand that one of the great challenges of our era is striking a balance between pursuing new science and technology and maintaining the ethical and moral principles that are so crucial to the fabric of a healthy society."
In contrast to Mr. Frist, Mr. Santorum believes advances can take place without destroying embryos. He plans to introduce legislation to fund research into potential methods of creating "pluripotent stem cells," or adult stems cells that can act like embryonic ones. "In this way, scientists are able to pursue progress without abandoning principle," he said.
Researchers in Mr. Santorum's home state recently announced several scientific leaps toward lifesaving cures that do not require the killing of embryos. A University of Pittsburgh study published last month showed that cells from the placenta share key characteristics with stem cells taken from embryos with the potential to become any cell in the body. Therefore, they could be used to replace damaged cells in previously irreparable organs such as the kidneys, liver, or spinal cord.
Mr. Santorum praised a researcher at the Pittsburgh Tissue Engineering Initiative who turned stem cells from muscle into blood, nerve, cartilage, and cardiac cells. On Sept. 19, the University of California-Irvine released news that a team of researchers had used adult human neural stem cells to repair the damaged spinal cords of mice.
"Congress should focus its attention and resources on further developing these viable, promising therapies," Mr. Santorum wrote.
Upon returning from summer recess, U.S. senators expected a post-vacation fray over whether to increase federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research. But that has taken a backseat to hurricane relief and John Roberts' confirmation hearings. In the eyes of some of Mr. Santorum's fellow Catholic pro-lifers, that's not a bad thing. "At this point, we don't see the pro-life side having any strong majorities" on the stem-cell research issue, said Joseph Meaney, director of international coordination for Human Life International, a Catholic pro-life education group. "There's a need for a very strong public education to go on for people to understand what's at issue."
Mary Beliveau, legislative director of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, called Mr. Santorum's position "extremely important" because he is "shedding light on advances being made with adult stem-cell research."
Since the summer, Mr. Santorum's name has popped up on several lists of possible 2008 Republican nominees for president. He insists that he is not interested and is focusing on his already heated campaign for reelection in 2006. But as one of the few strong pro-lifers on a list of moderates-think Rudolph Giuliani, George Pataki, and Bill Frist-the party's conservative base might discover a real interest in him.