Columnist Peggy Noonan recently quoted a journalist saying that the expansion of federal entitlement spending during the past five years should come as no surprise, since George W. Bush "ran as a compassionate conservative." Noonan's frustrated reaction: "This left me rubbing my brow in confusion. Is that what Mr. Bush meant by compassionate conservatism?"
I don't think so, judging by several conversations then-Gov. Bush and I had in Texas during the 1990s. At that time, compassionate conservatism was about neither government growth nor budget-cutting. Instead, it was a different way of looking at what government should do, what "civil society" -- religious and civic groups -- should do and what individuals should do.
Democrats had equated compassion for the poor with government poverty-fighting expenditures: Vote against my spending bill and you're hard-hearted. They maintained that position even though entitlement programs did more harm than good when they enabled and even encouraged people to cease efforts.
Republican critics of those programs had repeatedly made the mistake of implying that welfare programs were fine except for their expense: I'm for your bill, but let's cut the outlay by 10 percent. Welfare programs were expensive, but this affluent country could afford them. The real cost was multigenerational welfare dependency.
Republicans and others needed to understand that the welfare state was not extravagant, but stingy. The welfare state gave the needy bread and told them to be content with that alone. The welfare state gave the rest of us the opportunity to be stingy also. We could salve our consciences even as we scrimped on what many of the destitute needed most -- challenging, personal and often spiritual help.
One compassionate conservative goal was to encourage average citizens to help the poor directly, instead of handing off all the responsibility to government officials. Another goal was to end government discrimination against faith-based groups that were often the most effective poverty-fighters. Those goals were both expenditure-neutral: They suggested neither bigger nor smaller budgets, but a different way of spending.