The revival of compassionate conservatism

The Washington Post reports that Paul Ryan, in many ways the most appealing and credible GOP presidential contender/pretender, has turned his focus to fighting poverty. Following in the footsteps of his mentor Jack Kemp, Ryan has been visiting inner-city neighborhoods accompanied by the estimable conservative anti- poverty crusader Robert Woodson.

In addition, Ryan’s staff is working with center-right think tanks to develop ideas to replace the top-down, bureaucrat-centric approach to poverty favored by the left. Apparently, Ryan would like to use the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 unveiling of the War on Poverty (an occasion better forgotten in some ways) to roll out his own anti-poverty agenda.

The Post’s story is short on specifics about what that agenda might look like. It claims, plausibly, that Ryan himself so far has offered few of them. From what I gather, we’re talking about a tax incentive here and there and some support for what Bush 41 used to call “a thousand points of light.”

If the subject is compassionate conservatism, Michael Gerson can’t be far away. Today he is only a few Washington Post pages away, as he devotes his op-ed to discussing the newly revealed compassionate conservatism of Tea Party stalwart Sen. Mike Lee, another attractive presidential contender/pretender.

Lee too now favors a “comprehensive anti-poverty, upward-mobility agenda”. He calls for limited but energic government action to promote the compassionate work of civil society and to encourage economic opportunity.

As for specifics, Gerson says that Lee favors increasing the child tax credit, promoting flextime, and building transportation infrastructure. That’s not a “comprehensive anti-poverty, upward- mobility agenda,” but Gerson tells us that Lee’s program is “only half formed.”

What should we make of this? First, it is good politics. George W. Bush was right to talk up compassionate conservatism. “Message, I care” is a good, winning message, so long as one doesn’t announce that it is a message, as his father once did. That message, better packaged, was a key to the son’s narrow victory in 2000.

Many Republicans forgot this reality following the fall from grace of Bush 43 and the victory of a non-compassion talking GOP in 2010. I received plenty of pushback when I reminded a conservative dinner gathering of it in the heady days of early 2011. But the electorate has now issued the same reminder, and some of the brighter GOP leaders have taken note.

Politics aside, there is merit in some of compassionate conservatism’s agenda. And I’m a long-time fan of Bob Woodson.

But “compassionate conservative” is not a viable poverty-fighting program, and should not be held out as such. Accordingly, Paul Ryan would jeopardize his well-earned reputation for seriousness if he were to invite comparison between his compassionate agenda and LBJ’s war on poverty.

Poverty can be significantly reduced, consistent with conservative principles, through economic growth — a rising tide will lift most non-leaky boats — coupled with a revival of the traditional family — the great preventative of leaky boats.

Saying so may make a politician sound too much like a cross between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, both of whom turned out to be presidential pretenders. Hence the temptation to say other things.

That temptation need not be resisted, as long as one remembers that, between them, Romney and Santorum got it basically right.

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