What Compassionate Conservatism Did

I'm working on a review of Michael Gerson's book, so I basically want to keep my powder dry on the subjects that everyone's talking and talking about. But this, from Matt, seems worth a rejoinder:

It's clear that there's a strain of Republican Party rhetoric that's similar in spirit to the Catholic-inspired Christian Democratic parties of the European center-right. Gerson, both as a speechwriter and as a columnist, clearly falls into that tradition. So, too, for most of his presidency has George W. Bush. And now on the campaign trail Mike Huckabee has taken up that banner.

But what neither Bush nor Huckabee nor anyone else seems to have offered is a policy agenda that cashes the rhetorical checks they're spreading around. If the libertarian tradition in the GOP mostly consists of a free-market agenda that's friendly to the interests of rich people and big companies, the Bushian deviations from the free-market line have overwhelmingly been aimed at advancing lobbyist-friendly policies. Similarly, Mike Huckabee talks a good game about inequality, but his distinctive policy proposal is a massively regressive (and phenomenally stupid) National Retail Sales Tax. There's just no there there. In practice to find Republicans likely to support programs that help poor people, you need to look to the generically "moderate" (i.e., vulnerable) Republicans representing culturally liberal coastal areas — Susan Collins, Gordon Smith, etc. — and Christian Democratic talk remains just that: talk.

I don't entirely agree. Bush did have a pseudo-Christian Democratic policy agenda: It consisted of the faith-based initiatives, No Child Left Behind, the prescription drugs bill, and immigration reform. The first was small potatoes, but the rest weren't small at all. Now it's true that both the prescription drugs bill and the immigration bill were friendly to business interests as well as to seniors and recent immigrants, which is what you'd expect from an administration where both Gerson and Dick Cheney had the President's ear. But there's no inherent contradiction in giving more money to schools or seniors and to corporations (though there's the problem of how you pay for it all); or in helping illegal immigrations toward citizenship and helping businesses keep their supply of cheap labor. And those combinations constitute a large chunk of the Bush domestic-policy record - or the attempted record, in the case of immigration reform.

I should add that I think it's a record that points to a significant problem with any "compassionate" or "big government" or "Christian Democratic" conservatism - the tendency to just co-opt liberal ideas and make them more business-friendly, while leaving anything distinctively conservative by the wayside. But I don't think you say there's no there there and leave it at that.