Is “compassionate conservatism” for cowards? The Washington Post quotes GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry in his book, Fed Up:
The branding of Compassionate Conservatism meant that the GOP was sending the wrong signal that conservatism alone wasn’t sufficient or, worse yet, was somehow flawed and had to be rebranded. For the first time, we were acting like liberals who call themselves progressives, running away to some degree from who we were, and what we stood for. The result is an ongoing, near-complete capitulation to the federal welfare state.
Perry continues, blaming the GOP’s subsequent losses on this foolish branding that compromised their views on limited government and limited spending: “That used to be our trump card—the one issue we could fall back on when all else was going wrong in a political context. But it was gone by 2006, and … it means our brand was in shambles.”
In other words, says Perry, an attempt to inject “compassion” into conservatism was nothing but a sissy and cynical way to get voters. He’s probably mostly right. Consider what Bush aide Mark McKinnon said in response to Perry’s remarks: “I think George Bush won crucial independent voters with his message of compassionate conservatism. I worry that today’s Republican firebrand version of conservatism is dragging the party so far right that it will repel independent voters.”
Compassion really is out of mode, even as a method of cynical branding. The 2010 Republicans ran on starving government and slashing deficits, not compassion. No Republican candidate for president has taken on Bush’s “compassionate conservative” mantle so far. Several months ago, David Weigel posited that Mike Huckabee’s decision not to run marked “the end of compassionate conservatism.” Huckabee called libertarianism what no Republican candidate would dare to call it today: “a heartless, callous, soulless type of economic conservatism because it says, ‘Look, we want to cut taxes and eliminate government. If it means that elderly people don’t get their Medicare drugs, so be it. If it means little kids go without education and health care, so be it.’ ”
I don’t think that “compassion” should be the foundation for policy or that it should become the criteria for deciding if a policy is right or not. I prefer to use the criteria that a policy is just, fair, and that it affirms human rights and human dignity—criteria I find more concrete and more solidly in the realm of reasoned argument. After all, both sides claim that their policies are “compassionate,” whether that means showing “compassion” by helpfully curing welfare queens of government dependency, or showing “compassion” by adopting Jesus’ view of the FY2011-2012 United States budget. This is usually empty rhetoric—“branding.”
Compassion should be more than that. It is not merely a criteria for judging policies but an individual outlook that should infuse our public and private lives. Karen Armstrong defines it in her book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life:
“Compassion” means “to endure [something] with another person,” to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view.
As human beings—and policy researchers, wonks, writers, and candidates for president are presumably all human beings—compassion is something we should feel toward other human beings. Compassion should strike us when we read about people who lack health insurance and people who lack jobs and who are struggling to make ends meet. And compassion is a feeling we should act upon, a feeling that should lead us to alleviate human suffering in any way possible. Compassion should spill over from a private feeling into public life; and by public life I mean not just public life as we usually conceive of it—reduced to the political—but public life that includes our duty to care for our fellow citizens and promote the common good through any means, political or social or cultural or personal.
So Rick Perry is right—compassion should not be a focus-grouped buzzword we use to get votes. But if he is suggesting compassion does not have a place in private and public life, he’s wrong. It does have a place. And it loses all meaning—goes against the whole idea of “entering generously” into another person’s point of view—when either side pretends to have an exclusive claim on it.