The Failure Of Compassionate Conservatism

Ross Douthat did an interesting column about the structural failures of conservative populists to mount a viable presidential campaign. Conor Friedersdorf offers a narrower point arguing that “Populists on the right were ill served by the 2008 rise of Sarah Palin and her subsequent role on the national scene, because she made right-leaning populism seem unappealing to a lot of potential converts.”

All this, I think, speaks too much to tactics and not enough to governance. What you need in politics, ultimately, is some kind of track record of results. A “populist” politics, I take it, plans to uplift the many by striking at the privileges of the few. A right-leaning populism would start from the (accurate) premise that some of the privileges of the few derive from their use of the power of the state and would seek to dismantle these instances of big government privilege. But who is doing this? You can read a fair number of blog posts and even the occasional speech or article about it. But where’s the governor or mayor who’s going to town on this agenda and succeeding? Clearly there are any of number of people who you might claim have done something or other along these lines. But generally speaking GOP governors seem pretty focused on making the tax base regressive and cutting social services for the poor. You could imagine a “conservative populist” who does a bunch of small government stuff but showily makes a grand gesture of not slashing Medicaid eligibility. You could cut spending on some alleged boondoggle and return the money to the people via lower sales taxes, while declining to cut high-end personal or corporate income tax rates. But absent something along those lines, there’s just no there there to any of this. A political style that’s just about rhetoric belongs on talk radio which is, as Douthat observes, exactly where you find it.

The irony here is that what I’m suggesting is essentially George W Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” On the campaign trail in 2000, Bush slammed congressional Republicans for wanting to cut EITC — trying to show that his vision of small government doesn’t mean screwing the poor. In office, Bush paired education policy changes disliked by teachers unions with an increase in federal K-12 funding — trying to show that his vision of education reform isn’t just about miserliness.

But compassionate conservatism was a mess. We also got huge debt financed regressive tax cuts, a misbegotten war in Iraq, and catastrophically poor regulation of the financial system. We got a huge recession, and two Democratic wave elections. So we’re back to the basic order of things. I don’t think you can find any developed democracy where there isn’t a party of business, and in America that party is naturally the Republican Party. Populist rhetoric has its place in anyone’s political strategy, but unless you can make it mean something it’s just rhetoric. And in the wake of “compassionate conservatism,” nobody really wants to try to make it mean anything.