Could compassionate conservatism, mostly dead from 2002 to 2008 and dodo-dead since then, have a return engagement?
Columnist Jonah Goldberg last week wrote, “For years, I’ve criticized ‘compassionate conservatism’ as an insult to traditional conservatism and an affront to all things libertarian.” He also noted, “Neither critics nor supporters of compassionate conservatism could come to a consensus over the question of whether it was a mushy-gushy marketing slogan (a Republican version of Bill Clinton’s feel-your-pain liberalism) or a serious philosophical argument for a kind of Tory altruism, albeit with an evangelical idiom and a Texan accent.”
Goldberg continued, “Some sophisticated analysts, such as my National Review colleague Ramesh Ponnuru, always acknowledged the philosophical shortcomings and inconsistencies of compassionate conservatism, but argued that something like it was necessary nonetheless.” The inconsistencies were present because some used the term as a big-government euphemism and others saw it (rightly, I argued) as a way to have smaller government.
I never had the sense that Karl Rove, for example, cared that much about either the political philosophy or poverty-fighting, but he saw early on what Goldberg and others now acknowledge: “The evolving demographics of the country, combined with the profound changes to both the culture and the economy, demanded the GOP change both its sales pitch and its governing philosophy.”
Goldberg’s conclusion: “According to exit polls, Romney decisively beat Obama on the questions of leadership, values and economic expertise, but was crushed by more than 60 points on the question of which candidate ‘cares about people like me.’… I still don’t like compassionate conservatism. … But given the election results, I have to acknowledge that [George W. Bush] was more prescient than I appreciated at the time.”