The Failure of ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ Offers Lessons for the Trumpian Right

Published June 14, 2022


In June 2001, key officials from the White House and Capitol Hill met to go over President George W. Bush’s first budget. As David Kuo, deputy director of the newly created White House faith-based office, recalled in his memoir Tempting Faith, Senate Finance Chair Chuck Grassley had carved out room in his blueprint for one of the president’s signature campaign promises — $6 billion per year in tax credits aimed at encouraging charitable giving to organizations fighting poverty. In the negotiations, however, the president’s legislative team told Grassley to “get rid of” the charity tax credits. Grassley’s advisers were stunned, as were their Democratic colleagues. Why? Because the money was needed for another political priority: the $100 billion cut in the estate tax.

That trade-off sums up how Republican politics traditionally operated. The GOP was long dominated by a faction stressing a fiscally conservative, supply-side economic agenda, with a restive, socially conservative wing playing second fiddle. But the Trump era may have showcased the beginning of a transition in power: A final, exhausted push to lower corporate tax rates in 2017 has given way to a heavier emphasis on cultural issues, with conservatives increasingly willing to use the state to go after corporations or intervene in the market.

This populist turn was presaged by a series of battles between social conservatives and much of the GOP establishment. One chapter in particular — the rise and fall of “compassionate conservatism” — offers a cautionary tale for today’s would-be working-class heroes on the right. Now that Donald Trump has helped rewire the conservative movement’s coalition away from the free marketeers, those interested in solidifying the GOP’s shift toward the working class have a chance to take some valuable insights from the failure of compassionate conservatives. Chief among them is that a fully fleshed out agenda with broad support is needed — not just a bumper sticker slogan.

The conservative movement has always had jockeying factions. In the heady days of the early Reagan administration, socially conservative members of Congress announced a comprehensive Family Protection Act that sought, among other things, to increase tax benefits for parents, require parental notification for abortion, advance “parents’ rights” and restore prayer in public schools. Jerry Falwell and other leaders of the religious right thought their bill would be a priority for the new president. “The Reagan administration, however, had other things to do,” as Frances FitzGerald notes in her history of the evangelical movement, and social issues took a back seat to tax cuts and deregulation.

Time and again, social and religious conservatives grumbled about being left behind. Pat Buchanan’s famous 1992 RNC address portrayed the resentment social conservatives felt about having their issues seemingly placed on the back burner — and made a prophetic, populist appeal to the forgotten mill workers, police officers and other “conservatives of the heart,” rather than the country club set.

A few years later, a new phrase began percolating in the GOP: compassionate conservatism. The commentator Doug Wead is said to have first coined the term, but it was expounded upon by a number of Christian writers such as Marvin Olasky, the editor of the evangelical Christian magazine WORLD, who saw compassionate conservatism as an approach to government that would use state power to reinvigorate civil society.

Olasky, in particular, began sketching out a vision for compassionate conservatism that placed the emphasis on the true root of the word — to suffer with someone — rather than impersonal spending through the welfare state. His vision emphasized communitarianism, volunteerism and strengthening civil-society groups who would work alongside those in need. Its lineage stretched back to Alexis de Tocqueville and the original generation of neoconservatives like Robert Nisbet, Irving Kristol and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Though Olasky’s work played well with some conservatives opposed to government spending, it also called for expanding tax credits for charitable giving and a greater public investment in faith-based initiatives aimed at fighting poverty or combating drug and alcohol abuse.

The approach soon found a champion in a Texas governor whose own life was changed by a religious awakening. In one of the first major addresses of his 2000 presidential campaign, Bush criticized what he called two narrow mindsets: “The first is that government provides the only real compassion.” The other is “the idea that if government would only get out of our way, all our problems would be solved.” Later in the campaign, he accused congressional Republicans of trying “to balance their budget on the backs of the poor.”

Bush’s branding annoyed many fellow Republicans. The phrase compassionate conservatism was “an attack and a criticism on conservatives,” former Vice President Dan Quayle told the New York Times. “Conservatives are compassionate and that is my criticism.” Other fiscally minded conservatives found the phrase off-putting, if not insulting. But despite such opposition, the mantra formed the centerpiece of Bush’s domestic agenda. Unfortunately for adherents, the administration’s commitment to communitarianism turned out to be skin-deep.

The signature program was the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. To counter fears it would favor evangelical groups, John DiIulio, a Catholic Democrat, was brought in to run it, but he quickly ran into high-profile clashes with the religious right and soon resigned. The GOP-controlled House passed legislation that would have boosted public aid to faith-based charities while expanding religious freedom protections, but it was seen as too aggressive and never had a real chance in the Senate. In FitzGerald’s telling, “the White House did not even try to pressure [Tom] DeLay and his allies to back off from their extreme positions and write a bill that could pass.”

As Bush speechwriter David Frum later pointed out, even those inside the White House viewed the phrase as “less like a philosophy than a marketing slogan.” This lack of clarity allowed plenty of disparate initiatives to get the label “compassion” slapped on it without any overarching strategy. Bush speechwriters Michael Gerson and Matthew Scully began using “compassionate conservatism” to frame their pet projects of fighting AIDS in Africa and advocating against animal cruelty — potentially worthy causes, but far from the bottom-up, communitarian approach advocated for by Olasky. In 2003, Bush called the signing of Medicare Part D, which covered prescription drugs for seniors, “the act of a vibrant and compassionate government.” For proponents of the philosophy, there could have been few things less Tocquevillian in scope than a welfare state entitlement aimed at a politically advantageous voting bloc.

Without a clear commitment in the White House or sufficient pressure from outside activists — and with 9/11 irrevocably shifting the focus of the Bush presidency — compassionate conservatism fizzled. It was mostly style and little substance, an executive-level appendage without purpose. With more time and focus, perhaps compassionate conservatism could have developed a fuller agenda, built up deeper roots of support and not fallen victim to a premature success in branding.

Compassionate conservatism would surely struggle to find a foothold in today’s GOP. But the Trump administration, which was attacked by many as being neither compassionate nor especially conservative, was in some ways a vindication of the compassionate conservative impulse. Trump’s harder, populist edge was built on grievance, not empathy, with an approach powered by working-class resentment rather than an eye toward fighting poverty through faith and communitarianism. Yet both efforts demonstrated a skepticism toward the party’s Wall Street wing and broke with economic orthodoxy to advance its vision of what society should look like.

That same impulse is driving a new generation of Republicans talking openly about shifting the party’s orientation — people like Sens. Marco Rubio and Josh Hawley, or aspiring candidates J.D. Vance and Blake Masters. But these self-styled populists or “common-good conservatives” should embrace getting into the policy weeds, or risk suffering the same fate as their ideological forebears.

Working class-friendly, culturally conservative rhetoric is helpful, but politicians also need to cast such ideals into actual policies and develop a consensus within the party. The 2000s-era GOP provide a vivid example of what happens when a movement like compassionate conservatism comes unexpectedly into power without having built out a clear set of principles and field-tested its signature pieces of legislation. (Democrats recently relearned that lesson with their inability to prioritize in the Build Back Better negotiations.)

The populist forces in the Republican Party should take advantage of its time in the minority to start readying its platform and working with grassroots groups to build up a drumbeat of support for a suite of pro-family policies. Most importantly, an agenda that prioritizes working-class families should spotlight a meaningful child tax credit. Shedding libertarian impulses to pursue a pro-family agenda would also mean giving parents more power in what their kids see online or funding education savings accounts to enable broader school choice. And the conservative movement’s traditional supply-side strengths should be brought to bear on the cost of living — boosting housing supply, energy abundance and innovation.

Importantly, today’s populists have what the compassionate conservatives did not — an open ideological field. The gatekeepers that shaped Republican politics at the turn of the century are, for better or for worse, fading. The Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Club for Growth can no longer set red lines on economic policy, and the GOP’s love affair with corporate America is at a low ebb.

The political appeal of an economically populist agenda mirrors the success of the culture war some Republicans have found success running on. A religiously infused social conservatism, with its traditional focus on hot-button moral topics such as abortion and homosexuality, has lost influence relative to a cultural conservatism concerned with critical race theory and wokeness run amok. The opposition to trans athletes and other contemporary LGBTQ fights, for example, is less religiously coded than prior battles over gay marriage. School prayer and protesting “Piss Christ” are out; Tucker Carlson and the “Libs of TikTok” are in. A recent Pew poll found that only 48 percent of Republicans thought it was somewhat or very important to be Christian to be considered a true American, down from 63 percent in 2016. As America secularizes, the conservative movement is secularizing with it, and broadening its appeal in the process.

These trends may bedevil religious conservatives like myself or National Review’s Nate Hochman, but the political dividends have been unmistakable. It’s no coincidence that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has eagerly picked culture war fights with major corporations, is among the most popular Republicans in the country. Glenn Youngkin won in blue Virginia in part from a parent-fueled backlash to Democratic governance. Neither has sought to align themselves explicitly with the religious right.

This ultimately offers an opportunity for certain factions within the GOP. A conservative movement less tied to the orthodoxies of supply-side economics or traditional religion may appeal to a wider range of voters, as evidenced in Trump’s success among more secular voters. With fewer green eye-shades types throwing cold water on child tax credits or Medicaid expansion for postpartum moms, GOP politicians will find the most success marrying a broad cultural populism with an economic agenda focused on working-class families.

In 2024 and beyond, a Republican politician could very well win national office on vague cultural appeals. Some senior GOP officials would prefer to offer no policy agenda at all. But if new policy ideas are not given the chance to have the kinks worked out and become absorbed by the GOP rank-and-file, efforts to become a working-class Republican Party could sputter out in the same way compassionate conservatism became an empty branding exercise.

Laying the groundwork for governing isn’t as exciting as owning the libs on Twitter. But it will be essential to avoiding the pitfalls of a previous attempt to reorient conservatism, which wasn’t fully prepared for its moment and paid the price.

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

Patrick T. Brown is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where his work with the Life and Family Initiative focuses on developing a robust pro-family economic agenda and supporting families as the cornerstone of a healthy and flourishing society.

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