Time's Sullivan: 'Did Austerity Politics Kill Compassionate Conservatism?'

August 5th, 2011 5:02 PM

While the liberal media scoffed at George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" in 1999 and 2000 as gimmicky and insufficient compared to traditional big government social welfare spending binges, they're starting to miss it now.

Just ask Time's Amy Sullivan:

In the wake of the debt-ceiling debate, young voters might find it hard to believe that just ten years ago, “compassionate conservative” was a mantle worn with a straight face by many GOP leaders. In fact, you could argue that George W. Bush split the independent vote with Al Gore in 2000 because of his image as a compassionate conservative. Now, of course, in the era of the kick-ass-and-kill-programs Tea Party, few Republicans who value their careers would run as a touchy-feely politician. But is compassionate conservatism dead, or just mostly dead?

Sullivan went on to explore that question by noting social conservative luminaries such as Marvin Olasky, Chuck Colson, and the Family Research Council attacking Republicans for their -- real or imagined -- devotion by to the godless and charity-denouncing philosophy of Ayn Rand. She concluded that:

The days of Stephen Goldsmith and John DiIulio and even George W. Bush are over just as much as those of the Nelson Rockefeller Republicans. There are two dominant responses to tough economic times–redoubled altruism and redoubled libertarianism–and the Tea Party adamantly stands for the latter.

That presumes a few things, namely that government spending taxpayer monies on social welfare is altruistic, a laughable assertion given how incredibly easy it is to spend other people's money to help the less fortunate, as opposed to giving away one's precious time and hard-earned money to aid someone who's less fortunate through a private secular or religious charitable enterprise.

What's more, it falsely suggests Tea Party members are tight-fisted Randian objectivists who have no use for private charity, which is the furthest thing from the truth.

Indeed, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a study in February that found (emphasis mine):

...Tea Party supporters tend to have conservative opinions not just about economic matters, but also about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In addition, they are much more likely than registered voters as a whole to say that their religion is the most important factor in determining their opinions on these social issues

What seems incomprehensible to Sullivan is that Catholics and Christian evangelicals can be simultaneously devout and devoted to good works and politically conservative, with no conflict between the two.

What's more, while Sullivan cited Olasky's concerns, she neglects the fact that the central thesis of his1994 book "The Tragedy of American Compassion" is that the poor are not helped out by impersonal transfers of money from a federal or state government so much as by personal interaction that local charitable outlets, such as churches and the like, thrive at.

Most Tea Partiers, particularly the religious ones among them, would probably wholeheartedly agree with Olasky's central argument about the tragedy of big government's "compassion" on the poor.

Indeed, I suspect there's ultimately much common ground on policy that folks like Olasky and Colson can find with constitutionally-conservative small-government Tea Party folks, even if their political rhetoric is often sharply different.

But as we move forward into a reelection year that sees a spendthrift liberal Democratic president up for reelection, look for more articles like Sullivan's that seek to hype any and all points of contention between religious conservatives and Tea Partiers.