At the Republican National Convention in 1988, for example, the party's candidate for president promised to usher in a "kinder and gentler" nation. The man who had been president of that nation -- the nation that so desperately needed to be made "kinder and gentler" -- was one Ronald Reagan, Republican. Though his political adversaries thought Reagan was evil incarnate, Reagan-haters tend not to be a large constituency at Republican National Conventions.
Whatever you think of Reagan, Republicans liked him, and this was a Republican convention. In fact, Americans seemed to like him, too, electing Reagan president in two landslides and even voting in his boob of a vice president as one final tribute to Reagan. (Once in office, President George Bush made eminently clear that he had learned absolutely nothing from Reagan and was removed from office by the American people at their very next opportunity.)
It was people who hated Reagan whom George Bush Sr. was playing to when pledging to preside over a "kinder and gentler" nation after eight years of peace and prosperity under a Republican president.
Flash forward to the Republican National Convention four years later, and the next politically fainthearted Republican nominee for president. This is what he said to gin up a room full of Republicans:
"If there is anyone who has mistakenly attached himself to the party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you: Tonight this hall belongs to the party of Lincoln, and the exits, which are clearly marked, are for you to walk out of as I stand here and hold this ground -- without compromise."
Very brave, Bob -- that "without compromise" detail was an especially nice touch. Pardon me for asking the obvious, but does Bob Dole actually know one single Republican who believes the Republican Party should be open only to -- presumably -- white Christians? Has he ever in his entire life met such a Republican? Have you?
If Bob Dole had been the Republican representative at the Lincoln-Douglas debates, instead of taking on slavery, he would have been babbling about standing up, "without compromise," to the monarchy.
But apart from the amazing irrelevancy and nausea-inducing spectacle of cowardice masquerading as courage, the Republican candidate for president was once again announcing to the world that his party was composed of a bunch of red-neck racists. But not to worry: He would bravely face them down, "without compromise."
So naturally I was surprised and pleased to discover that "compassionate conservatism" -- the central idea of George W. Bush's campaign -- may in fact be something new. The defining element of "compassionate conservatism," it seems to me, was captured in this sentence from Bush's convention speech: "(T)he alternative to bureaucracy is not indifference."
I, for one, bolted past indifference straight into loathing long ago. A half-century of useless (and more typically pernicious) socialist programs purportedly to help the poor now produces this Pavlovian response to any invocation of "the poor," or "compassion" in a lot of people. Call us cynical, but we've seen this Judas kiss before.
It's not that we hate the poor; it's that every time the government tries to help the poor it ends up removing the marvelous incentives life provides to do things like buy an alarm clock, get a job, keep your knees together before marriage, and generally become a productive, happy member of society.
But consider that even when George W. Bush was talking about "the poor" he insistently said: "Big government is not the answer. ... It is to put conservative values and conservative ideas into the thick of the fight for justice and opportunity."
Bush also said: "So many of us held our first child, and saw a better self reflected in their eyes. And in that family love, many have found the sign and symbol of an even greater love, and have been touched by faith. We have discovered that who we are is more important than what we have. And we know we must renew our values to restore our country." That's not socialism; it's Christian charity.
Out of the Republican Party's seemingly inexhaustible supply of Bushes and Doles, we may finally have located one who talks about compassion without meaning another horrific federal bureaucracy. He better mean it.