George W. Bush, the all-but-anointed GOP candidate for president, is, so we are told, a "compassionate conservative." We have been told this for several months now and, with the primary season upon us, will doubtless be told it for some months to come. George W.'s political handlers obviously believe that his claim to be a compassionate conservative is good election strategy. They may even sincerely believe he is one.
This prompts the question of what exactly is a compassionate conservative. We already know what an ordinary, garden-variety conservative is: someone who dislikes activist government (except when it enforces morality), and despises spending and taxes. This type of green-eye-shade conservative, personified in Congress during the early '90s by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and now by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, demands a strictly limited role in American life for the public sector. In elective office, such folks see few compelling national problems to be addressed -- their constituents tend to be society's contented winners -- and little legitimate need for government intervention of any kind.
Unfortunately, the image presented by traditional conservatives of this stripe is one of mean-spiritedness: an unwillingness to help the less fortunate minority among us, or to safeguard the hard-working majority from the unfairness of a chaotic globalized marketplace. Their philosophy might be best exemplified by the Freedom to Farm Act passed by congressional Republicans in 1996, which subjected America's struggling family farmers to a "free-market" agricultural world dominated by agribusiness; its victims in the heartland have lately taken to calling this destructive piece of legislation the "Freedom to Fail Act." An equally trenchant example might be the adamant conservative refusal to consider the plight of the medically uninsured in America; even minor HMO-reform proposals caused near apoplexy last fall among right-wing members of Congress.
The knee-jerk ideological purity of congressional conservatives made them a perfect electoral foil for President Clinton in 1996 and 1998, a lesson not lost on the Bush strategists. George W. and his advisers know that the hard-right conservative tide has receded and that a winning presidential bid in 2000 demands a more moderate appearing, more rhetorically centrist campaign, whether based on genuine conviction or not. Tactically, this requires a distancing of the candidate from his partyís red-meat rightist elements. Thus, the creation of the made-for-prime-time compassionate conservative.
In arriving at its strategy, the Bush team owes a debt of gratitude to the original political centrist, the great triangulator Bill Clinton. The president, with the help of his seamy advisor Dick Morris, wrote the very book George W. is reading. As adapted by the Clintonites, the centrist approach led to the president positioning himself after 1994 midway between the Gingrich Republicans and his own partyís liberal majority. One result was to undercut and stymie Democratic efforts to regain control of Congress, apparently a small price to pay for guaranteeing the Clinton reelection. The maneuvering room gained by triangulation allowed the president to be all things to all people, to be seemingly caring and moderate while applying bitter medicine, to be -- a compassionate conservative.
George W. and his advisers have memorized the Clinton treatise. Its core message: Avoid strong party loyalties and don't, under any circumstances, identify closely with a definable ideology. This has a downside, of course. If Seinfeld was the TV series about nothing, George W. appears to be the presidential candidate about nothing. Aside from his quiet support of NAFTA and his vague endorsement of Social Security and Medicare privatization, little is known about his positions on national issues, and so far the mass media seems unmotivated to find out. For months, all Bush news coverage has revolved around the governor's money-raising success -- $67 million at year's end, including personal donations from hundreds of corporate CEOs.
There is one exception to the issueless magical mystery tour: taxation. George W. has made abundantly clear his take on the nation's revenue sources. Federal income taxes, he believes, should be slashed, especially on wealthy individuals making over $250,000 a year, whose rates he would reduce from the present 39.6 percent to just 33 percent, the lowest since the Reagan years. Inheritance taxes, principally paid by the same affluent class, he would phase out entirely. This generous give-back to the richest Americans would be financed by drawing down the budget surplus, the same surplus that is supposed to ensure the integrity of Medicare and/or provide coverage for the 43 million medically uninsured. It's a conservative plan all right, but it's hardly compassionate.
Eventually, we can assume, demands will be made that other aspects of compassionate conservatism be programmatically fleshed out. At present, it remains a catch-phrase suggesting a warm and gentle tributary in divergence from the cold rightward stream of contemporary politics. But is it? Louis Dubose, editor of The Texas Observer, and Robert Dreyfuss, correspondent to The American Prospect, have exposed a dark underside to the Bush record as governor that belies George W.'s claim to be the non-Gingrich Republican of the 2000 presidential race.
At the state level, they reveal, Bush has enthusiastically favored the following: private-school vouchers paid for with public money, massive tax breaks for the oil-and-gas industry, a major increase in the regressive sales tax to offset property-tax cuts for large real-estate owners, tort reform beneficial to corporations facing lawsuits (including Big Tobacco), a privatized welfare system operated by publicly funded contractors, aggressive application of the death penalty, and an increased role in health care for profitmaking HMOs. The Bush of record, Dubose and Dreyfuss add, has simultaneously opposed gun control, labor-rights legislation, mandatory emissions standards for industrial polluters, and full state participation in the federal Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP).
This points up the serious negative that is George W.'s Texas connection. Bush the Younger is the latest in a string of presidential aspirants, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton among them, whose little known but supposedly sterling records in the governor's chair entitled them to serious national consideration. George W., it is said, has been an admired and successful state executive since assuming the governorship of the Lone Star State in 1995.
But how good a recommendation is that? Texas, which native daughter Molly Ivins calls "Mississippi with good roads," is hardly a model for the nation. It ranks first among states in prison executions, first in producing environmental pollutants, second in medically uninsured children, fifth in percentage of citizens living in poverty, 38th in teacher salaries, 47th in delivery of social services, and 49th in spending on the environment. Sounds like New Hampshire with a mean streak.
Based on these stark figures, the compassionate conservative has done precious little during his tenure to raise the socioeconomic level of his home state. Can he then be trusted to reverse course 180 degrees when, and if, he reaches the White House? The record suggests not.
George W. Bush is indeed a different kind of conservative than we have seen lately. He is not a grim social conservative of the Christian Coalition sort, but he is also no exemplar of compassion. His election would mark the triumphant return of the country-club, corporate conservatism that ruled the Republican party up until the 1960s. That's a form of political deja vu the nation can do without.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.