Redeeming the pledge

In his Daily Standard column, Paul finds a common thread in Prsident Bush’s approach to significant public policy issues: “The pledge.” From Bush’ perspective, as Paul sees it, the thread seems to be the pragmatism that underlies Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”

Paul’s conclusion perfectly anticipates this morning’s announcement that President Bush is nominating Third Circuit Judge Samuel Alito, a judge with a 15-year track record on the court, to the Supreme Court:

[W]e know that [President Bush] is mostly sound [on judicial appointments], having nominated many conservatives to the appeals courts and one to the Supreme Court. Bush said he would nominate Justices in the mold of Scalia and Thomas, and Bush is a man of his word. But Bush is not immune from error in identifying potential justices in that mold. Not just because he’s a non-lawyer, but also because when it comes to public policy he’s not conservative enough by inclination automatically to prefer practitioners of judicial restraint to judicial pragmatists. Accordingly, when Bush makes his next selection, “trust but verify” should remain the operative maxim for conservatives.

Paul’s take on Bush’s adaptation of conservative principles to welfare state liberalism parallels Charles Kesler’s take on “Bush’s philosphy,” to which we linked last week. Kesler writes:

Compassionate conservatism is the President’s self-proclaimed philosophy. This term proves the old admonition that the adjective is the enemy of the noun. Conservatism defends “liberty and justice for all,” meaning that there are limits to what government can do to, and for, us. But a compassionate government cannot be a limited one. Its swelling sympathy will overwhelm the levees of individualism and consent (“I feel your pain,” whether you want me to or not); and its pity implies that for some unfortunate people, justice is not enough. This inherent indiscipline is why compassion used to be regarded as needing reason’s regulation, and why in any event it was thought better suited to private, not public, life. Compassionate conservatism, therefore, means big government conservatism. And big government conservatism is no conservatism at all.

Yet President Bush thinks of himself as a conservative, and there is something about him that fits the bill, intermittently. He has cut taxes, defended the nation against its enemies, and appointed good judges to the federal courts. More than that, he has championed bold policies like health savings accounts and Social Security reform. He’s willing to gamble on big ideas that aim at reformation, especially of individual character (the goal of the “ownership society”). He is not so comfortable with ideas in the sense of principles or theories, especially if these interfere with compassionate action. If people are hurting, he thinks government has to “move.”


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