Compassionate Conservatism Revisited

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A quasi-confession: One of my favorite politicians of the last fifteen years is George W. Bush. Unfortunately, I don’t mean George W. Bush, the President. I mean, George W. Bush, the candidate for President in 2000. The one who criticized Clinton-era attempts at “nation-building” and promised a “modest” foreign policy. The one who prophetically predicted the events that would undo his own Presidency several years later:

If we don’t stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we’re going to have a serious problem coming down the road. And I’m going to prevent that.

Well, he may have been a little off on the second prediction. 

Bush the Candidate was able to articulate pro-life principles effectively. He promised to appoint judges who were willing to occasionally glance at the Constitution. He favored raising the Earned Income Tax Credit for low and moderate income individuals. He was committed to implementing accountability in Education. Bush the Candidate advocated for expansion of social services (e.g. what would become Medicare Part D). At the time, it appeared to me that he was the best option by a mile from a Catholic perspective.

Of course, 2000 was an interesting time. No one was interested in health care reform after the Clintonian debacle in the early 90’s (other than Medicare Part D). A bipartisan compromise on welfare reform appeared to be overwhelmingly successful. There were no pressing international political issues, and Bush, as mentioned above, promised to be more modest in our dealings with the world than Clinton had been. Which left culture war issues like abortion and embryonic stem cell research as the primary differences between the candidates in what amounted to a Coke/Pepsi culture clash. Good times, with internet-bubble fattened 401k’s for much of the middle class.

U.S. politics have changed a bit since then. But I still think Bush’s platform was a good one. To be sure, it basically charted a European-style Christian Democrat course for the U.S., but then I like European-style Christian Democracy, which after all, was consciously modeled in part on Catholic Social Teaching. Obviously, there are a lot of complications with any political philosophy, but, on the whole, I’m in favor of both functioning markets and generous social safety nets (taxes on individual earnings and consumption; less regulation and corporatism). Although, unlike Bush in practice (and the Affordable Care Act), I think we need to pay for social services when we expand them. I suppose most AC readers are to the right of this point of view, but I’m curious:

How did you view Bush the candidate circa 2000, and what are your thoughts on Christian Social Democrats, particularly their effortso to model political philosophy on Catholic Social Teaching?

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  1. I’d distinguish between “compassionate conservatism” with what I’ll call “compassionate libertarianism.” I favor the latter. I don’t want to subsidize churches or married couples. But I do want a generous safety net that’s neutral as to spending.

  2. My own policy preference (and come to that knowledge) have shifted a bit since 2000, so it’s hard to line up my impressions of that campaign with my current ones. Generally, I thought Bush was a pretty good candidate (certainly, I’d prefer a reload of the 2000 Bush to any of our current options), but I do think he’d absorbed (or maybe was just parroting) some of the politically expedient isolationism the GOP had fallen into during the Clinton administration (much more so than they have under Obama). I think the US should be “modest” in its foreign policy in terms of not attempting things that aren’t doable, but certainly not in the sense of staying home and letting things go how they go. The more I read about the history of the modern age up until WW2, the more I think that the world is far, far better off with a single superpower that spends more on the military than the rest of the world combined than on having peace rely on a balance of power between “great powers”. And while some consider this not a CST friendly role, I would tend to think that the Church’s history of dealing with hegemonic powers quite happily (the Roman Empire after Constantine, Charlemagne’s empire, the Spanish and the Austro-Hungarians, etc.) is a fairly good template in this regard.

    On economics, I am frustrated with the tendency of many Republicans these days to assume that we’re always on the wrong side of the Laffer curve, but I’m simply not clear that European style social democracy is stable (see example: Europe right now), nor am I all that clear that Bush’s vague “compassionate conservatism” was all that much like Christian Democracy.

    Honestly, neither side seems to be coming out with exciting tax/social policy right now. The Dems seem to think they can have a “New New Deal” without bothering to reference reality, and the GOP is much better at cutting taxes than cutting spending (and perhaps a bit too anti-government to do a good job of redesigning and simplifying programs rather than just eliminating them.

  3. Christian Social Democracy is great until the State goes broke which appears to be happening in Europe and here. It also helps if there is a United States of America around so that the amount of the defense budget can be sufficient to defend the nation from the Grand Duchy of Fenwick, but not much else.

    In regard to the Bush presidency I doubt if there would have been any greater involvement abroad than we saw under Clinton. What utterly transformed the Bush presidency was 9-11. Up to that time I think that Bush was completely focused on domestic matters and viewed his presidency as sort of a Texas governorship writ large, with Bush having little interest in foreign affairs and little desire for any great foreign involvements. 9-11 changed all of that.

    I think the finest movement of the Bush presidency was when he got behind the Surge, when very few people inside or outside the administration were in favor of it. His numbers were tanking and it was obvious that his Iraq policy was largely responsible, but instead of cutting and running he backed Petraeus in defeating the insurgency. He will win few accolades until the passions of the present have cooled, but that was perhaps the finest act of presidential leadership I have seen in my lifetime.

  4. A Christian Democrat party could easily do well in the United States – and might be necessary as the current Democrat party has failed utterly, and the GOP leadership may fail to understand the revolutionary needs of the moment. The key, to me, is a matter of better educating people on the moral aspect of our crisis – that the debt and the wars are secondary to the fact that we have become an indecent nation. We can cut all the taxes and regulations we want; we can blow the world to smithereens or pull back to Fortress America…but if we don’t have a moral revival, we’re still doomed.

    At the time, I believe this sort of education is possible…more and more people are becoming disillusioned with both Big Government and Big Corporation and if some clever fellow can tie those two monstrosities to the moral degradation of our society (and both sides of that nauseating coin do assist each other, in turn, in breaking down societal morals), we’ll be on our way.

  5. Betwixt and between someone might offer the rest of us an understanding of the distinction between ‘social democracy’, ‘christian democracy’, ‘christian social democracy’, and whatever you might call contemporary American political economy. That done, you then might give us a precis of how the social encyclicals could ever be used to adjudicate the disputes parties in this country actually (rather than caricatures of the stances people have). While we are at it, just what is meant by ‘big government’ and why is it that public spending per se (as opposed to public sector borrowing) causes a society to ‘go broke’?

  6. As I read your US recent history, are we to reject the former Mr Bush cabinet member who said that 44 was searching for an excuse to get after Saddam, way before 9/11. The Pentagon illegally diverted funds to go into Iraq while the Afghanistan job was not obvviously completed, still is not. I am, to repeat, not a conspiracy theorist or sit at the feet of Left of Right demagogues and respect unbiased history when one can find such!

  7. HermitTalker, the former cabinet secretary to which you are referring is Paul O’Neill. People who have been fired for poor performance are not the most reliable of witnesses and even in his rendering what he heard was a solitary flippant remark.

    The Iraq war was explicitly authorized by a joint resolution of Congress.

  8. As I recall his work, there were several conversations at cabinet regarding the Saddam presence; “W” did at one point mention that “he tried to kill my Daddy”- a friend who once worked inside the beltway, and is an avid Democrat now retired to FL, sees it in psychological terms, worthy of Greek drama! NOW, as to Mr Blair in the UK here in our Europe, he lost the PM-ship and his Party the election in large part because of the reasons/excuses for Iraq 11 over the WMD and it seems tthe vote to approve was not based on clear, unequivocal evidence at the time Both sides may have fudged the security facts.

  9. Paul O’Neill was Sec’y of the Treasury. He was “sounding the alarm” about the housing bubble that government sponsored enterprises (FHLMC, FNMA, HUD, FHA, VA, Fed, FDIC, etc.) had inflated. He was fired. He was right.

    I dunno how that it was related to Iraq or what.

    BTW: Victor Davis Hanson:

    “When you think about it, Obama has kept the detention camp at Guantanamo. He’s going ahead with military tribunals. And where Bush only waterboarded three terrorists, Obama has used drones to execute about 2,600.

    “Obama’s sort of growing on me.”

    If Obama wasn’t destroying the USA, maybe he’d be okay.

  10. One of my reasons to retire in Europe was watching the headlong rush to Natural Law chaos in the USA. The fear of how much power the government would have over health care, given the disregard for human life from womb to tomb. There are no greener fields over the fence, but I stuck my tent peg in the ground here where the culture is kinder and the economy is not war driven as president Ike warned those years back. How prophetic of a former US General of the allied forces in Europe and POTUS later.

  11. It’s not surprising that getting rid of Saddam would occur to leaders on both sides of the Atlantic. Both the US and UK had had combat troops in the region since the ’91 war, trying to enforce sanctions that Saddam clearly had no intention to abide by. One needs neither complex psychological theories nor conspiracy theories to see why regime change in Iraq was attractive when it had been made the official US policy back under Clinton.

    Of course, if retiring to Europem seemed like a good idea for reasons of culture and stability… We’re just sitting around hoping the EU doesn’t manage to send its collective economy down the toilet and pull the rest of the world spiraling down after it just as we’re getting back on our feet over here. I certainly wouldn’t want to stake a whole lot of my future on European welfare state structures at this point.

  12. Thoughtful post Darwin. I had other considerations obviously but you will recall that the donwslide so quickly from the fundamental acceptance of the NATIRAL LAW, as explicitly proclaimed in the Preamble bothered me a lot as a believer and Catholic Christian Humanist. We are not relying on Big Brother/Sister Merkel and Sarkozy for our economic and social security. We are being forced to pay back the gamblers, Bankers and Co. Inc. who caused the problem and we also petition the government to ease up on laying the tax burden on the most vulnerable. As we look back at the USA, we are praying for all the world economies to recover even as we shudder at the very fragile recovery there with the growing awareness that we are in fact a global village and few are thriving with stable health. Time for more prayer and discernment for the next election and the decade beyond.

  13. “I like Bush’s argument, that we have a humble foreign policy, when he ran in 2000…”

    – Ron Paul

    “I get to my God through Christ.

    Christ to me, is a man of peace. He is for peace. He’s not for war. He doesn’t justify preemptive declared war. I strongly believe there is a Christian doctrine of Just War and I believe this nation has drifted from that, no matter what the rationals are, we have drifted from that and it’s very, very dangerous and I see in many ways being un-Christian.

    And to justify what we do in the name of Christianity I think is very dangerous and not part of what Christianity is all about. Christ came here for spiritual reasons not secular war and boundaries and geography. Yet we are now dedicating so much of our aggressive activity in the name of God, but God– He is the Prince of Peace. That is what I see from my God, and through Christ, I vote for peace.”

    – Ron Paul

    “Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”

    Mathew 5:9

  14. Sorry for the confusion with the videos.

    “Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”

    Mathew 5:9

  15. “The key, to me, is a matter of better educating people on the moral aspect of our crisis – that the debt and the wars are secondary to the fact that we have become an indecent nation. We can cut all the taxes and regulations we want; we can blow the world to smithereens or pull back to Fortress America…but if we don’t have a moral revival, we’re still doomed. ”

    I agree with this.

    So does Ron Paul.

  16. “We are being forced to pay back the gamblers, Bankers and Co. Inc. who caused the problem and we also petition the government to ease up on laying the tax burden on the most vulnerable.”

    Could you explain how the current European debt crisis is related to bankers etc and how current European govts. are laying tax burdens on the vulnerable.

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