David Frum considers the legacy of Karl Rove in the broad context of the “compassionate conservatism” with which Rove is associated. Frum’s thesis is that through compassionate conservatism, Rove answered brilliantly the political question of how Republicans could win elections in the post-Bill Clinton era, but failed to answer correctly the policy question of what the nation needs and how conservatives can achieve it.
There at least three issues here. The first is whether the Republicans could have won the presidency in 2000 without advocating something like the compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush. Given the popularity of Bill Clinton and his style of government activism, I think the answer is no, and Frum seems to agree.
The second question is whether Bush’s form of compassionate conservatism could have worked politically over an extended period beyond 2000. With one important exception, I think the answer is yes, assuming that events unrelated to the philosophy did not intervene. If compassionate conservatism was a congenial enough center-right philosophy with which to succeed in 2000, there’s no reason why, in the absence of an economic downturn or an unpopular war, it couldn’t continue to serve as a philosophy around which elections could be won. As Frum notes, the Democratic base seems to be growing faster than the Republican base, so appealing to the middle with some centrist ideas and rhetoric seems like a sound political approach. And until our lack of success in Iraq became the predominant issue in our politics, the approach appeared to be working.
Of course, if compassionate conservatism was destined to bring us poor governance and consistently bad policies, then it couldn’t succeed politically for very long. But I don’t see much evidence that this was the case. One might not like the prescription drug benefit or faith based initiatives, but there was nothing ruinous about these sorts of policies.
The one exception is Bush’s approach to comprehensive immigration reform. Here the Bush-Rove brand of compassionate conservatism combined very bad policy with very bad politics — this was the one agenda item that the truly conservative portion of the coalition was never going to swallow. Presumably, that’s why the administration saved its big push here until late.
The third question is whether compassionate conservatism is a good philosophy on the merits. Traditional conservatives like Frum (and me) think it isn’t, or at least that isn’t nearly as good on the merits as traditional conservatism.
Frum sees the second and third questions as merging because ultimately the best way to win elections is consistently to deliver good government through sound long-term policies. This is hard to dispute. But few leaders or their aides have ever gotten the ultimate policy questions quite right, and it seems a bit unfair to judge Rove on this basis. He was, after all, a political operative (however exalted a one), not a philosopher-king.
UPDATE: Rich Lowry shares my general view.
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