Columnist Peggy Noonan recently quoted a journalist saying that the expansion of federal entitlement spending during the past five years should come as no surprise, since George W. Bush "ran as a compassionate conservative." Ms. Noonan's frustrated reaction: "This left me rubbing my brow in confusion. Is that what Mr. Bush meant by compassionate conservatism?"
I don't think so, judging by several conversations Mr. Bush and I had in Texas during the 1990s. At that time compassionate conservatism was about neither government growth nor budget-cutting. Instead, it was a different way of looking at what government should do, what "civil society"-religious and civic groups-should do, and what individuals should do.
Democrats had equated compassion for the poor with government poverty-fighting expenditures: Vote against my spending bill and you're hard-hearted. They maintained that position even though entitlement programs, by discouraging individual effort, did more harm than good.
Republican critics of those programs had repeatedly made the mistake of implying that welfare programs were fine except for their expense: I'm for your bill, but let's cut the outlay by 10 percent. Welfare programs were expensive, but this affluent country could afford them. The real cost was multigenerational welfare dependency.
Republicans and others needed to understand that the welfare state was not extravagant but stingy. The welfare state gave the needy bread and told them to be content with that alone. The welfare state gave the rest of us the opportunity to be stingy also. We could salve our consciences even as we scrimped on what many of the destitute needed most-challenging, personal, and often spiritual help.
One compassionate conservative goal was to encourage average citizens to help the poor directly, instead of handing off all the responsibility to government officials. Another goal was to end government discrimination against faith-based groups that were often the most effective poverty-fighters. Those goals were both expenditure-neutral: They suggested neither bigger nor smaller budgets, but a different way of spending.
Mr. Bush showed his understanding of compassionate conservatism in a July 1999 Indianapolis speech by commending the city's Front Porch Alliance, an attempt not to turn church groups into dependents but to help them cut through red tape. Example: One pastor wanted to turn a hooker-used alley across from his church into a park ("Today's Great Escape," Aug. 5, 2000). Because of bureaucratic reasons 51 different government agencies and private groups had to sign off on the alley-to-park conversion. The Front Porch Alliance helped the pastor get that done, and prostitution took a hit.
Mr. Bush continued, "Government can spend money, but it can't put hope in our hearts or a sense of purpose in our lives. This is done by churches and synagogues and mosques and charities that warm the cold of life." He announced his basic principles: First, "Resources should be devolved, not just to states, but to charities and neighborhood healers." Second, "We will never ask an organization to compromise its core values and spiritual mission to get the help it needs."
What Mr. Bush emphasized, in short, was the importance of religious groups being religious. They would not have to become government look-alikes to gain access to resources. He specified a good way to decentralize: charity tax credits.
In practice, most resources have not been devolved, and charity tax credits were left behind early-2001 amid rapture about tax cuts. Still, some good things have happened. President Bush recently signed an executive order creating the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in the Department of Homeland Security.
That office, if it succeeds in shredding some red tape, will help religious and civic groups do even more in disaster relief and recovery than they did following Hurricane Katrina. We need Front Porch Alliances to fight catastrophe, and maybe we'll get them.
At the state and local levels 32 governors and over 115 mayors have established their own offices for faith-based and community initiatives. If they are Front Porch Initiatives, great. If they contribute to decentralization, great. If they are pork-barrel projects, not great. But it's springtime, and optimism can still bloom.