Everyone murmured about new programs, new costs, how the president "spends like a drunken sailor except the sailor spends his own money." And then someone, a smart young journalist, said, (I paraphrase), But we always knew what Bush was. He told us when he ran as a compassionate conservative. This left me rubbing my brow in confusion. Is that what Mr. Bush meant by compassionate conservatism?
That's not what I understood him to mean. If I'd thought he was a big-spending Rockefeller Republican--that is, if I'd thought he was a man who could not imagine and had never absorbed the damage big spending does--I wouldn't have voted for him.
Back to Mr. Bush in 2000. I believe it is fair to say most Republicans did not think George W. Bush was motivated to run for the presidency for the primary reason of cutting or controlling spending. But it is also fair to say that they did not think he was Lyndon B. Johnson. And that's what he's turned into.
How did this happen? In the years after 9/11 I looked at Mr. Bush's big budgets, and his expansion of entitlements, and assumed he was sacrificing fiscal prudence--interesting that that's the word people used to spoof his father--in order to build and maintain, however tenuously, a feeling of national unity. I assumed he wanted to lessen bipartisan tensions when America was wading into the new world of modern terrorism. I thought: This may be right and it may be wrong, but I understand it. And certainly I thought Bush was better on spending than a Democrat, with all the pressures on him to spend, would be.
A John Kerry would spend as much and raise taxes too. But could a President Kerry spend more than President Bush? How?
In any case, what bipartisan spirit there was post-9/11 has broken down, Mr. Bush will never have to run again, and he is in a position to come forward and make the case, even if only rhetorically, to slow and cut spending. He has not. And there's no sign he will.
Which leaves me where I was nine months ago, in the meeting with conservatives, rubbing my brow in confusion.
Once again, Peggy voices what many of us are feeling.
I never liked the term "compassionate conservative," because it really is nothing more than an insult to conservatives, agreeing with the slander that conservatives don't care about others. I argued at the time (and still believe) that conservatism is the true compassion because it cares for the whole person, rather than looking at just their financial situation. Liberalism too often boils down to "here's a check and have sex with ever you want." Conservatism recognizes the spiritual side of a person: work is a good thing for a person to do, so people should be encouraged to work if able; viewing another as a sexual object demeans both the used and the user; religious faith of some sort is intrinsic to a successful republic. Conservatives look at the needs of the whole person, while also recognizing the needs of the community. Too much individualism ("if it feels good, do it") is detrimental to a well-run society, and unfortunately, that's the direction that (perhaps unintentionally) many liberals want to takes us.
Conservatives strike the middle ground between excess statism on one side and excessive individualism on the other. We recognize that both individual freedom and the power of the state have to have limits or despotism will inevitably result. (See The Road to Serfdom
by F.A. Hayek for a great explaintion of this.)
Something I read recently argued that there should be no "types" of conservatism. ("compassionate", "neo", "paleo", "economic", etc.) You're either a conservtive or you're not and there's a lot to be said for that. Sicne conservatism is nonidelogical, there still leaves much room for debate amongst conservatives as to the best public policy approaches on the various issues of the day. But that debdate has to take place within a conservtive framework. (For a decent summary of that framework, but by no means the final word, see Russell Kirk
So, I've said this before and freaked people out, but I don't think we can honestly describe W as a conservative.