Compassionate Conservatism Is Back

A new Republican National Committee report promises to look beyond Reagan. But only as far as Bush, and Rove.

The 98-page, breast-beating report released Monday morning by a Republican National Committee subcommittee opens by telling the party not to look back: "It is no wonder that Republican policies can seem stale; they are very nearly identical to those ordered up by the Party more than 30 years ago. For Republicans to design an agenda that applies to the conditions of 1980 is as if Ronald Reagan designed his agenda for conditions that existed in the Truman years," it quotes two former Bush aides, Ari Fleischer and Michael Gerson, as saying.

But while the new RNC document may move past Reagan Republicanism, it marks a different kind of restoration: of the campaigns of President George W. Bush, and in particular to his first campaign, which promised "compassionate conservatism."

Compassionate conservatism was, indisputably, political genius. To its critics, it was cynicism — conservatism with, as The New Republic snarked at the time, "hugs for poor people." To its backers, it had an under-recognized impact on President George W. Bush's policy, driving efforts to fight AIDS in Africa and poverty at home, often by steering federal funds to religious charities. The vision's most recent standard-bearer was probably former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, whose 2008 campaign demonstrated a clear appeal to his party despite fierce attacks as "big government conservatism," but it had essentially vanished by the 2012 campaign.

The first section of the new report states the problem: "Some people say, 'Republicans don't care.'" It quotes the father of compassionate conservatism — in the sense of a vision that is very conservative; and also genuinely focused on the problems of the poor — Jack Kemp. And the report, in the spirit of Kemp — and unlike either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama in 2012 — uses the p-word: poverty.

"If we are going to grow as a Party, our policies and actions must take into account that the middle class has struggled mightily and that far too many of our citizens live in poverty," it says. "To people who are flat on their back, unemployed or disabled and in need of help, they do not care if the help comes from the private sector or the government — they just want help."

The report is fundamentally about branding, which is to say politics; it's notably light on policy. It also, Politico's Maggie Haberman noted Monday morning, skims over the mechanical issue that many insiders see as the party's deepest operational problem, its relationship with vendors.

And at its core, the report is a glimpse of the party Karl Rove and George W. Bush, assisted by figures like Fleischer and Gerson, sought to create starting in the late 1990s. This was the party in which George W. Bush was elected, but one whose message shifted dramatically on Sept. 11, 2001. From there, Bush ran almost exclusively as a national security president, and by the time he began pitching elements of Social Security privatization in his second term, the move was a non-sequitur and came with none of the halo of compassion of the earlier Bush years. The Tea Party represented a wing of the party — which included some, but certainly not all, of Bush's own aides — who saw the ostentatious push for "compassion" as a veneer over policies that ought to, they thought, triumph on the merits; and who believed that the contrast with President Barack Obama meant that the veneer was no longer needed. Romney's private suggestion of a class war between 53% of makers and 47% of takers in the American economy represented a particularly pure version of that.

Now the Republican National Committee is returning to Bush's original vision. The question is which policies — and in particular, what vision for solving poverty — will accompany that push.

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