When Governor Bush articulated his vision for “compassionate conservatism” at a speech to the Manhattan Institute in 1999, he rejected the typical Republican “disdain for government,” and sided with Benjamin Franklin, arguing that “the general opinion of the goodness of government” is foundational to America. The government must concern itself with the “human problems that persist in the shadow of affluence,” and conservative ideals should be utilized in the interest of “greater justice, less suffering, more opportunity.” Bush even criticized the Republican-controlled Congress for “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.” Instead, the showcase for his compassionate conservative government was to be his education plan, which would not shrink or dismantle the Department of Education but would use it to deliver substantial sums of money to vouchers and charter schools, spurring competition for federal dollars in order to fund a free market reform of the American educational system.

This was not mere posturing. Compassionate conservatism was put into action. The Bush administration achieved its most notable domestic victories in Congress -- from the tax cuts to No Child Left Behind, the prescription drug benefits for seniors, support for faith-based organizations, and its expansion of the national security apparatus -- with substantial Democratic support, and all save the tax cuts expanded government influence. As Fred Barnes noted in 2003, Bush was forming what Irving Kristol called “the conservative welfare state.” Or as David Brooks wrote in 2005, Bush will “spend heaps of federal dollars” if he can direct them to “programs that enhance individual initiative and personal responsibility.” The conservative ends justified the liberal means.

Still, members of the liberal intelligentsia believed Bush’s governing philosophy is that “the government can have no positive role in its citizen’s [sic] lives.” Deficits were seen not as evidence to the contrary, but as part of a plan “to rid social programs of their funding.” It is difficult to overstate the profundity of the misunderstanding when George Lakoff writes that Bush represents the quintessentially conservative commitment “to get rid of protective agencies and social programs” and establish a government “limited to security and maintaining a free market.”

At its best, compassionate conservatism is as Michael Gerson defined it: “the theory that the government should encourage the effective provision of social services without providing the service itself.” What would distinguish liberals and conservatives, with regard to government spending, would not be their commitments to large government and small government respectively, but that the Democrats would use big-government mechanisms to grow the federal bureaucracy and perpetuate dependency on the federal dime, while the Republicans would use those same mechanisms to promote competition, innovation, and independence.