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Battle for conservatism's soul

Politics | Some Republicans are willing to talk compassionate conservatism again

Issue: "Rita: After the storms," Oct. 8, 2005

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.

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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."

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