Jacob Weisberg, somewhat bizarrely, is sitting here in 2008 writing about Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” as if it’s a part of his persona that we ought to treat very seriously. Krugman wonders “Why are political writers still unaware that Bush’s phrase ‘compassionate conservatism’ wasn’t an acceptance of the Great Society, but rather a dog-whistle to the religious right?” Beyond that, why are political writers still unaware that politicians deliberately lie in order to enhance the popularity of their political prospects? Compassionate conservatism obviously wasn’t just a dog-whistle, it was also deliberately designed to foster an impression of a more moderate strain of Republicanism. And, indeed, to do that you had to toss some meat into the soup:
The following year, in 2003, Mr. Bush pressed his case for invading Iraq and uttered the infamous 16 words (“The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa”). But alongside that disingenuous indictment, Mr. Bush presented Congress with a new raft of centrist-minded initiatives: $450 million to minister to the needs of children of prisoners, $600 million to treat drug addicts, $1.2 billion for hydrogen-powered cars, $10 billion in new money to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.
You need to put $450 million into some kind of context relative to the federal budget — $450 million is tiny. $450 million is the kind of budget request you make when you don’t really care about the issue at hand but are hoping to gull innumerate reporters into writing about your $450 million initiative as if it were roughly on par with your proposed war whose costs run three orders of magnitude higher.
Similarly with the hydrogen cars. Spending $1.2 billion on hydrogen-powered cars certainly could be an element of a centrist environmental policy. Certainly what doling out a subsidy like that suggests, logically speaking, is concern about carbon emissions and global warming. And of course, that’s exactly the suggestion the subsidy was intended to implant but the Bush administration isn’t concerned about carbon emissions and global warming at all. They hand out tons and tons of subsidies to the oil and coal industries, they steadfastly oppose all limits to curb carbon emissions, and they act like a diplomatic wrecking ball at international conferences.
Compassionate conservatism was, in practice, nothing more than spin and a vague gesture at a higher-order justification for corruption. It’s bad enough that the press got spun at the time, but to look backward from a Bush-critical perspective and get spun all over again is bizarre. Look at Bush — he used to care and now he doesn’t! But no, he never cared; what everyone can now see is what people who looked at his policies in detail and in context could see clearly back in 1999–2003.