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Bush Draws Campaign Theme From More Than 'the Heart'
By Alison Mitchell
Ask Gov. George W. Bush of Texas about the intellectual origins of his campaign's mantra and he says, "Compassionate conservatism is first and foremost springing from the heart."
Yet well before Mr. Bush began building his presidential campaign around the words "compassionate conservative"—reshaping the image of his party to follow suit—a cadre of thinkers on the right had been trying for years to fashion a form of conservatism that rejected the welfare state but did not turn its back on the poor. And with his campaign strategist, Karl Rove, acting as his guide, Mr. Bush began reading their books and meeting them, even before his first race for governor.
Mr. Rove gave the governor "The Dream and the Nightmare," a book by Myron Magnet of the Manhattan Institute that Mr. Bush said helped crystallize his thinking about culture. The book is an indictment of the attitudes of the 1960's counterculture and its legacy to the poor. Mr. Rove also introduced Mr. Bush to Marvin Olasky—a proponent of 19th century-style charity over the entitlements of the welfare state—whom the governor calls "compassionate conservatism's leading thinker" in a foreword to Mr. Olasky's newest book.
Those introductions amounted to the first building blocks of the "compassionate conservative" platform Mr. Bush is running on today: tax incentives that he predicts will lead to an explosion of charitable giving; an emphasis on using religious institutions to deal with poverty, drug abuse and other social problems and a pledge to "usher in the responsibility era," to replace the notion that "if it feels good, do it."
The core concept of this platform is that while government has a responsibility to the needy, it does not have to provide the services itself. This approach can be seen in everything from Mr. Bush's proposals for a tax credit to help people buy health insurance to his call to divert some Social Security payroll taxes into individual investment accounts.
As Stephen Goldsmith, Mr. Bush's chief domestic policy adviser, describes it, "compassionate conservatism means providing help in such a way as to stimulate and reinforce self-governance."
Such thoughts have been germinating for years, and the Bush campaign drew from several different schools of conservative and neo-conservative thinkers.
Some, like Mr. Magnet, start with a scathing critique of the attitudes of the 1960's and essentially blame liberalism for creating an entrenched underclass. Others base their views on Roman Catholic teachings that say social problems are best dealt with by the institution closest to those who are suffering.
And still others are Republican politicians, like Representative John R. Kasich of Ohio and former Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, who have argued that the Republicans who put time limits on welfare benefits in 1996 could not just wash their hands of the poor.
"Can we match our skepticism about government with a bold new definition of public compassion?" Mr. Coats asked four years ago. "Can we dismantle a destructive welfare culture, and still fulfill our responsibilities to the disadvantaged?"
Mr. Bush describes "compassionate conservatism" as being rooted in values rather than as an intellectual movement. "It is the understanding that lives can be changed and that cultures can change," he said in a recent interview. "The origins are not just logical thought and inspirations from writings."
And he does not seem as steeped as his aides in the lineage of the ideas.
"News to me," Mr. Bush said when told that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had been captivated by many of the same writers as he had.
And while Mr. Gingrich not only read Mr. Olasky's "The Tragedy of American Compassion" but gave copies to freshmen lawmakers in 1995, Mr. Bush said he had primarily learned about Mr. Olasky's concepts from talking with him, rather than from reading his books.
But Mr. Bush is clearly devoted to the new conservatism.
As governor he has promoted hostels for welfare mothers and legislation that encouraged religion-based drug treatment centers and prison ministries.
And when the time came to assemble his campaign staff, he tapped two apostles of compassionate conservatism: Michael Gerson, his chief speechwriter, had been a senior aide to Mr. Coats; and Mr. Goldsmith, his chief domestic policy adviser, had tried to create a laboratory for compassionate conservatism as the mayor of Indianapolis in the 1990's.
"If you go back to 1996," Mr. Goldsmith said, "the Republicans' message was that government had been harmful. Therefore, eliminate government, and people in tough circumstances will suddenly be better off. Both the public and many Republican mayors said that's naïve. Merely the absence of bad action is not going to be sufficient."
When Mr. Bush made welfare's overhaul one of the main planks of his first campaign for governor and later wrestled with it after his election, Mr. Rove arranged for Mr. Bush to meet conservative academics like James Q. Wilson, who has studied character and social policy, urban problems and crime, as well as Mr. Olasky and Mr. Magnet, who were looking into the causes of entrenched urban poverty.
As Mr. Magnet, who had been a scholar of Dickens, put it, "Weren't dizzying contrasts of wealth and poverty supposed to have gone out with Dickensian London?"
Mr. Magnet, whose book is subtitled "The Sixties' Legacy to the Underclass," charged that the youth of the 1960's, with their sexual revolution, disdain for bourgeois culture and praise for alternative lifestyles, "permitted, even celebrated, behavior that when poor people practice it will imprison them inextricably in poverty."
And in "The Tragedy of American Compassion," Mr. Olasky, whose personal pilgrimage led him to become first a Marxist and then an evangelical Christian, concluded that 19th-century America's religious-based charity was preferable to the welfare state. He thought that the social revolution of the 1960's was "disastrous" because it emphasized public assistance as an entitlement, asking nothing in return. The "key contribution" of the War on Poverty, he wrote, was "the deliberate attempt to uncouple welfare from shame." Religious charities of the last century, he argued, were more effective because they made demands in exchange for aid and because they required donors to give time as well as money.
The attack on the counterculture struck a chord with Mr. Bush. "It really helped crystallize some of my thinking about cultures, changing cultures," he said in the interview, "and of part of the legacy of my generation." Mr. Bush quickly acknowledged, though, that "positive things" also came out of the activism of the baby boom generation, like environmentalism and the women's movement.
As governor, Mr. Bush also met David Horowitz, once a voice of the New Left, who later turned conservative. In his book "Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the 60's," written with Peter Collier, Mr. Horowitz branded the 1960's as a time when "the System—that collection of values that provide guidelines for societies as well as individuals—was assaulted and mauled."
The Bush campaign also owes an intellectual debt to Catholic neo-conservatives who have based their advocacy of empowering grass-roots groups on concepts articulated by several encyclicals. As described by John J. DiIulio, Jr., a University of Pennsylvania professor who has become a leading researcher of faith-based social services, the idea is that "charity begins at home. You always try to solve serious social problems as close to the people as possible." In other words, the federal government steps in only when problems become too big for other institutions.
Critics of compassionate conservatism argue that it erodes the wall between church and state and may use charity to force religion on the poor. They also ask whether the concept really offers a way to eliminate government's responsibility to the poor. Arianna Huffington, once an acolyte of the Gingrich revolution who ran an organization with Mr. Olasky to promote such ideas, now counts herself a skeptic.
"How do you take what works and make sure it reaches enough people?" Ms. Huffington asks. "Can that really be done without the raw power of government appropriations given that the private sector has not been forthcoming?" She said she once thought that if government were scaled back, the private sector would step forward. Instead, she realized "how much easier it was raising money for the opera or a fashionable museum."
And even among proponents of compassionate conservatism there is debate about how far to go. Mr. DiIulio, a professed New Democrat who has also advised some of Vice President Al Gore's aides, said he did not believe that the civic sector could replace government as a means to help the poor.
By contrast, Mr. Olasky, though he proposes a step-by-step testing of faith-based programs and tax credits for charity, seems eager to use them to eventually replace the federal safety net.
"We must place in the hands of state officials all decisions about welfare and the financing of it, and then press them to put welfare entirely in the hands of church and community based organizations," Mr. Olasky has written.
Some of these differences of opinion were hashed out for Mr. Bush in early 1999 when a group assembled by Mr. Goldsmith in Texas met with Mr. Bush and his top aides to prepare for the coming presidential campaign.
Mr. DiIulio and Mr. Olasky were there. So, among others, were Mr. Wilson and Robert L. Woodson Sr., the founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a nonprofit organization that assists neighborhood groups battling drugs, youth gangs and teen pregnancy.
Mr. Woodson, too, had gone on an intellectual journey, parting ways with former activists in the civil rights movement to become a leading black conservative in favor of social programs built around class not race.
For perhaps four hours that day, as the group discussed policies for the poor, Mr. Bush asked what would work and what would not.
They did not all agree. "True to my New Democrat profile I made very clear, for me at least, it's not about ministry versus Medicaid," said Mr. DiIulio. "You're not going to solve these problems with just faith-based approaches. There's not enough money in civic society."
Mr. Olasky recalled that Mr. Bush was less interested when the conversation touched on tax policy and tax credits and more engaged by the discussion of particular faith-based institutions.
He attributes Mr. Bush's interest in faith-based charitable institutions to Mr. Bush's personal conversions in the 1980's.
"He seems to me to feel a real connection with these inner-city faith-based groups," Mr. Olasky said. "He went through religious change at the same time he gave up drinking, so he understands even though he is from a very different economic background."
Mr. Bush straddled the views that had been aired that day in Texas months later when he spoke in Indianapolis about using churches and neighborhood groups to help the needy.
Like Mr. Olasky, Mr. Bush said charities should make demands of the recipients of aid.
"At Teen Challenge—a national drug treatment program—one official says, 'We have a rule: if you don't work, you don't eat,' " the Texas governor said. "This is demanding love," he said, "a severe mercy. These institutions, at their best, treat people as moral individuals, with responsibilities and duties, not as wards or clients or dependents or numbers."
But he also reflected the ideas of Mr. DiIulio, saying, "We will recognize there are some things that government should be doing—like Medicaid for poor children. Government cannot be replaced by charities—but it can welcome them as partners not resent them as rivals."
©2000 The New York Times
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