William F. Buckley once noted that he was 19 when the Cold War began at the Yalta conference. The year the Berlin Wall came down, he became a senior citizen. In other words, he explained, anti-Communism was a defining feature of conservatism his entire adult life. Domestically, meanwhile, the right was largely a "leave me alone coalition": Religious and traditional conservatives, overtaxed businessmen, Western libertarians, and others fed up with government social engineering and economic folly. The foreign policy battle against tyrannical statism abroad only buttressed the domestic antagonism toward well-intentioned and occasionally democratic statism at home.
The end of the Cold War gave way to what Charles Krauthammer dubbed the "holiday from history" of the 1990s and the "war on terror" in the 2000s. People forget that Bush was elected during the former and had the latter thrust upon him. But at the end of the 1990s, he was one of many voices on the right trying to craft a political rationale to deal with the changing electoral and demographic landscape. He campaigned on a "humble foreign policy" in 2000 and promised something very, very different than a "leave me alone" domestic policy.
He called his new approach to domestic policy "compassionate conservatism."
For years, I've criticized "compassionate conservatism" as an insult to traditional conservatism and an affront to all things libertarian.
Bush liked to say that he was a "different kind of Republican," that he was a "compassionate conservative."
I hated -- and still hate -- that formulation. Imagine if someone said, "I'm a different kind of Catholic (or Jew, or American, etc.): I'm a compassionate Catholic." The insinuation was -- by my lights, at least -- that conservatives who disagreed with him and his "strong-government conservatism" were somehow lacking in compassion.
As a candidate, Bush distanced himself from the Gingrich "revolutionaries" of the 1994 Congress, and he criticized social conservatives like Robert Bork for his admittedly uncheery book, "Slouching Towards Gomorrah." He talked endlessly about how tough a job single mothers have and scolded his fellow conservatives for failing to see that "family values don't end at the Rio Grande." As president, he said that "when somebody hurts, government has got to move." According to compassionate conservatives, reflexive anti-statism on the right is foolish, for there are many important -- and conservative -- things the state can do right.
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