Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- For most liberals, the advent of Barack Obama is enough to make their holiday joy complete, even as he seems to embrace a number of Bush-era approaches on the economy and national defense. But some conservatives feel compelled to celebrate the season by showing George W. Bush their Christmas jeer.

Witness John O'Sullivan, writing in a recent National Review. After accusing others -- namely me -- of being "morally condescending" and "downright hostile" to other forms of conservatism, O'Sullivan presses his own condescending and hostile case against Bush's compassionate conservatism.

O'Sullivan's main arguments come down to these: The phrase compassionate conservatism is redundant, because "relieving poverty and improving the condition of the people have been important strands of every conservatism since Edmund Burke." And because this governing approach is merely "a romantic cult of sensibility," it is incapable of setting priorities, causing it to scatter money and good intentions to the fickle winds.

There is, in fact, a long, respectable conservative tradition of modifying or replacing the word "conservatism." We have seen, in various eras, the coinage of Tory Democracy, progressive conservatism, neoconservatism and national greatness conservatism. And there is a reason for this -- because not "every" conservatism has shown an equal concern for the "condition of the people." Not the slaveholding conservatism of John C. Calhoun, which somehow found torture, rape and stolen labor to be a defensible part of the natural order. Not the isolationist conservatism before World War II that would have left Britain to face evil alone. Not the segregationist conservatism that defended the tradition of humiliating your neighbor. Such "conservatisms" merit hostility.

More recently (and in an entirely different league of moral offensiveness), there is also the Republican libertarianism of former Rep. Dick Armey, who once declared Medicare "a program I would have no part of in a free world." And of fiscal conservatives who proposed to delay the Medicare prescription drug benefit, or eliminate the president's global AIDS initiative, as an offset for Katrina spending.

Sometimes there is nothing more useful than a strong adjective in the drawing of essential distinctions -- and "compassionate" will do for now.


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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