John Leo
1. Just another publicity-gathering oxymoron, like "Progressive Conservatives" (a Canadian political party), "progressive moderation" (the stated goal of Sen. Prescott Bush, George W.'s grandfather), "conservative futurist" (Newt Gingrich) or "raging moderate" (one of Al Gore's self-descriptions). (On ABC's "Good Morning America," Charlie Gibson recently contributed a memorable oxymoron, promising "a live interview with Al Gore.")

2. A sop to religious conservatives. In his book "Compassionate Conservatism," Marvin Olasky, George W.'s Marxist-turned-fundamentalist adviser, talks almost exclusively about turning state-run programs over to faith-based organizations.

3. A repackaging of attempts to scale back government programs. George W. has made clear that government is not the enemy, but the endless federalizing of everything is a problem for conservatives, libertarians and many moderates. Halting the spread of the welfare state by moving the compassion industry into the private sector is a worthwhile goal, given a positive spin by George W., who has a high talent for avoiding negatives.

4. A clever way of Clintonizing the GOP message. "One of Clinton's subtlest but deepest legacies is the conflation of feeling with governing," writes Andrew Sullivan. Clinton did not invent huggy, lip-biting, feel-your-pain politics, but he carried it to astonishing heights as the nation's Therapist in Chief.

"Politicized compassion constitutes the very heart and soul of the Democratic Party," Irving Kristol wrote in 1996. So co-opting the feelings issue is a shameless but obvious Republican strategy. This accounts for all the new Republican chatter about "what's in my heart," rather than more grown-up discussion about what's in my head or your pocketbook.

Writing in The New Republic, Sullivan notes the loss of principle here: "One of conservatism's central insights is that compassion is an emotion best left out of government. ... Love, friendship, generosity, compassion -- these are virtues best practiced by private individuals, not public bureaucracies."

5. (or 4a) Creating the image of Republican niceness, particularly among women, who are generally more averse than men to sharp-edged, combative candidates and policies.

"Women have a much lower tolerance for conflict," says Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. This is not just about the unfortunate personas of Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott and Dick Armey. Polls show that women are more likely than men to view government in terms of the protection it can offer. Hillary Clinton's health plan, for example, drew far more support from women than from men.

In style, tone and policies, the Clinton presidency decisively feminized the Democratic Party, as Irving Kristol and others have pointed out. This pushed more men into the arms of the GOP. The crass way of putting this is to say that the Republicans have become the daddy party and the Democrats the mommy party. So each must troll heavily among opposite-sex voters while holding on to its own.

"Compassionate conservatism" announces a two-sex vote-hunting strategy by the daddy party: The adjective is for women; the noun is for men. Bush's remarkable success among women so far indicates that the strategy is working.

6. It's simply a new way of presenting the traditional Republican message.

Wall Street Journal staff reporters John Harwood and Jackie Calmes wrote last week that "there are more conservatives than liberals in the American electorate," and that the bedrock Republican strategy is to hold on to these conservatives, while explaining conservatism in better ways to moderate, non-ideological voters. This theory contradicts the conventional one tapped out by so many reporters in Philadelphia -- that Bush was cold-shouldering conservatives and moving the party to the middle. The Journal reporters argued that the product isn't changing, just the marketing.

7. It's an important attempt to change the terms of the culture war, and to win it.

This is the most sweeping interpretation of "compassionate conservatism," and it comes from the brilliant Shelby Steele, author and Hoover Institution fellow. Steele argues that the public's mysterious acceptance of political correctness and its unwillingness to call liberals on their double standards and repressive policies comes from one factor: the moral authority the left accrued by being correct early on race and civil rights. That's why "a whiff of indecency" hangs over conservative programs, while the ideology of the left remains unquestioned. The only way the right can correct this, he says, is to accrue its own moral authority by "an explicit social application of conservative principles to problems of inequality and poverty."

George W. Bush, Steele says, is the first conservative on the presidential level to understand that he is in a culture war. This would mean that Bush's outreach to minorities and emphasis on leaving no one behind isn't election-season honking but a serious attempt to change the party and the culture. Maybe Steele is right.


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

Be the first to read John Leo's column. Sign up today and receive Townhall.com delivered each morning to your inbox.