Republican policies, regardless of their intentions or outcomes, have always been characterized by the left as mean-spirited, heartless, and cruel. The right hasn’t been able to reverse this portrayal since the days of Reaganomics, but an attempt was made by George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign. Bush tried to counter the left’s cruel characterizations by promoting his brand of Republican politics as “compassionate conservatism.”
The left immediately responded by calling the phrase an oxymoron, which was hard to disagree with. By placing “compassion” in front of “conservatism” Bush reinforced the popular notion that conservatives were devoid of compassion all along. It also didn’t help when conservative intellectuals dismissed the phrase as a slogan to attract swing voters or claimed that Bush was rebranding the Republicans as the party of “big government.” So, the left easily defeated Bush’s counter-offensive with the aid of conservative intellectuals who prioritized preserving the integrity of limited government over promoting a new image of the Republican Party.
Now, it’s far from the truth that the left has a monopoly on compassion. The book, “Who Really Cares,” cites data that reveals conservative households give 30 percent more to charity than liberal households. But the left has cornered the market in what I call categorical compassion.
Categorical compassion is the left’s unconditional concern about individuals categorized as the poor, the disenfranchised, the uninsured, low wage workers, etc. The left believes social policies should increase and utilize the power of the government to eliminate all degrading and undignified categories from society and anything less is a moral failure. This is a huge distinction from policymakers that believe compassion is limited to assisting the individual and anything more is utopian.
The idea behind “compassionate conservatism” was to suggest that a limited government approach could still lead efforts to assist individuals out of these categories, and the role of government could actually extend for this social responsibility. George W. Bush said, “It’s compassionate to actively help our citizens in need. It’s conservative to insist on accountability and results.” But 9/11 and the wars that followed readjusted the Bush administration’s goals in the same way Vietnam diverted funds from LBJ’s War on Poverty.
After President Bush’s tenure the Democrats returned to the White House with the single-minded goal to eradicate the category of the uninsured. The Republican response was captured by a liberal commentator in 2012 saying, “Just three years after George W. Bush left the White House, compassionate conservatives are an endangered species. In the new Tea Party era, they’re all out disappearing from congress, and their philosophy is reviled with the GOP.” (This commentator also said Republican presidential candidates jostled to take the hardest line against government funded programs to help the poor during the 2012 primaries.)
Now, the Trump administration is a public relations disaster for the Republican Party. The Trump administration’s zero-tolerance border policy created new categories for the left to defend against Republican abuse, and recently, President Trump failed to demonstrate genuine compassion for the actual death toll of a natural disaster. This time critics on the left and right are calling the Republican president mean-spirited, heartless, and cruel. But is it possible that the current state of affairs is the byproduct of ridiculed compassion?
(J. Pharaoh Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
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