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December 2, 2007

Compassionate Conservatism

The article "The Man Who Killed Compassionate Conservatism" by Michael Schaffer in TNR has the statement:

As for Thompson, the original compassionate conservative, there would be no small-government incarnation of the great society on his watch. Rather than reinventing Medicaid, Thompson was called on to twist Republican arms in favor of Bush's prescription drug benefit... It's hard to imagine Thompson the reformist governor being enamored of the open-ended, fuzzy-numbered, nakedly political bill that Thompson the Bush administration factotum helped pass.

Reading this reminded me of confusion -- perhaps intentional by those who popularized the phrase -- about the term "compassionate conservatism." It isn't a kindler, gentler brand of conservatism, though that's certainly the impression the phrase is intended to convey. It doesn't mean, for example, government stepping in and helping after an event like hurricane Katrina. It refers to the work of Marvin Olasky, who wrote in his book Renewing American Compassion that reforming the present welfare system often means nothing more than "scraping off a bit of mold." Thus, he advocates scrapping the present welfare system entirely and replacing it with private and religious charity, a system he says was "effective in the nineteenth century." This is compassionate conservatism. It is a rebranding of an old approach, not a fundamentally new idea.

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