Michael Gerson

This leaves critics of the Bush administration with a "besides" problem. Bush is a heartless and callous conservative, "besides" the 1.4 million men, women and children who are alive because of treatment received through his AIDS initiative . . . "besides" the unquestioned gains of African American and Hispanic students in math and reading . . . "besides" 32 million seniors getting help to afford prescription drugs, including 10 million low-income seniors who get their medicine pretty much free. Iraq may have overshadowed these achievements; it does not eliminate them.

The Bush administration, in my view, should have devoted more resources and creativity to its faith-based initiatives. It should not have vetoed the State Children's Health Insurance Program expansion. The president's budget and economic teams have not been populated with enthusiastic compassionate conservatives, and sometimes this has shown. But by any fair historical measure, Bush's achievements on social justice at least equal those of Bill Clinton, who increased the earned-income tax credit, pushed for children's health coverage and reformed welfare to encourage work.

Bush has received little attention or thanks for his compassionate reforms. This is less a reflection on him than on the political challenge of compassionate conservatism. The conservative movement gives the president no credit because it views all these priorities -- foreign assistance, a federal role in education, the expansion of an entitlement -- as heresies, worthy of the stake. Liberals and Democrats offer no praise because a desire to help dying Africans, minority students and low-income seniors does not fit the image of Bush's cruelty that they wish to cultivate.

Compassionate conservatism is thus a cause without a constituency -- except for the large-hearted man I first met in 1999 and who, on Monday night, proposed to double global AIDS spending once again.

But it was only a hint of his former boldness. On policy, this State of the Union was the least ambitious effort of an ambitious presidency. Given the short calendar and a hostile Congress, there was no other option. The time for boldness has passed. But in his speech he seemed his same, confident self. And one source of his confidence should be this: His achievements are larger than his critics understand.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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