Respect Versus Compassion


I mean to link to it last week, but Michael Currie Schaffer is on to something when he draws a contrast between Tommy Thompson and Karl Rove's styles of conservative governance. I would go a bit further than he does, though, and suggest that there was an ideological as well as a practical difference between the two, which makes it something of a mistake to call Thompson "the original compassionate conservative." As Reihan and I have argued elsewhere, the sort of right-wing politics that Thompson embodied - particular in the push for welfare reform - was predicated on respect, rather than compassion; it emphasized self-help, individual responsibility and equal treatment, and lacked the implicit condescension that has lurked in Bush's "when people are hurting, the government's got to move" tendencies. This is a slippery distinction, I admit - No Child Left Behind, Bush's signature issue in 2000, was an uneasy hybrid of the two impulses, as were many of the Administration's foreign-aid forays - but I think it's a real one, and it goes to the heart of a number of Bush-era failures, the "comprehensive" immigration reform debacle chief among them.

I also think Schaffer is too quick to dismiss the political appeal of Thompson-style good-government conservatism, particularly in a general election. He writes:

Of course, before casting Rove as the villain in the GOP's abandonment of the gubernatorial goody-goodies of Thompson's generation, it's worth going back to the scoreboard. When he ran his candidate as a policy-paper perusing governor, Rove and the GOP lost by half a million votes and dipped to 50 seats in the Senate. Waging total politics, at least the first couple times, led to more successful results. Rove didn't so much betray the wonks as cast them aside when they proved unpalatable to any body of voters not dominated by the likes of David Broder. Rove's time may have passed in 2006, but Thompson's had passed well before it.

This is unconvincing stuff. Given the state of the economy and the post-impeachment unpopularity of the Congressional GOP, 2000 should have been a banner year for Democrats, and the fact that George W. Bush did as well as he did had a great deal to do with his (Rove-crafted) image as a "reformer with results," particularly where education policy was concerned. (As Josh Green notes, quoting Rove, "people who named education as their top issue voted for the Democrat over the Republican 76–16 percent in the 1996 presidential election, but just 52–44 in 2000.") Just because Bush improved his showing in '04 by hammering away on national security doesn't make his 2000 performance unimpressive, and it certainly doesn't demonstrate that a reformist, pragmatic conservatism is necessarily a political loser.

Photo by Flickr user Whereisyourmind used under a Creative Commons license.