Conservatism in drag?

By Patrick Ruffini
web posted May 1999

Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith is ready to borrow a page from the playbook of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. This is why Goldsmith, one of the GOP's most successful innovators (and now George W. Bush's privatization guru) labels "compassionate conservatism," Bush's blend of tough love and faith-based anti-poverty initiatives as a "fourth way," standing distinct from liberalism, conservatism, and the empty "third way" politics of Clinton, Blair, and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder.

Among the world's Left, it is now beyond question that "third way" politics is a surefire ticket to victory. Even as they grumble, the hard-line Left unapolegetically accepts centrist leaders as the most convenient vehicle through which they may partake in power. (For example, remind an leftie that Clinton signed the hated welfare reform law and accepted a balanced budget, and he'll likely respond, "Yes, but at least he's not a Republican.")

Thus far, the Right has regarded this notion with disdain. In election after election, the Right loses power to the "third way" and conservatives offer up the untested notion that the Right is still superior to the Left because it will never have to sell out its principles to regain power. Thus, the Right's sole strategy for victory has been to wait for an election where they can once again pin down their opponents as socialists. But that looks increasingly unlikely to happen. What the Right doesn't realize is that the Left has mastered the political version of rock, paper, scissors — Right may beat Left, but Center always beats Right.

With Goldsmith's offhand remark, we have a hint that conservatives may need to do more than just hire the right image consultants and smile. At the very least, they may need to get creative in defining what they stand for. Are Republicans getting ready to play the "third way" game, just like the victorious New Democrats, New Labour, and the German SPD's "New Middle?"

While I don't think you'll be seeing "Vote New Republican" bumper stickers in 2000, to many, "compassionate conservatism" is already a comprehensive challenge to Republican orthodoxy. Just look at the conventional conservatives who rail against the heresy of affixing a modifier to their sacred appelation. And many of the compassionate insurgents equally overstate their case by adopting the liberal critique of traditional conservatism as a front for callous indifference and corporate "greed." But is "compassionate conservatism" really conservatism clothed in liberal garb — conservatism in drag?

Competing with the New Democrats on their own "nth way" terms seems like a obvious strategy, but what troubles me about calling "compassionate conservatism" a fresh new departure is that it diminishes what most rank-and-file conservatives (as opposed to loudmouths like Paul Weyrich and Gary Bauer) actually believe. When Newt Gingrich talked about proto-"compassionate conservative" ideas like encouraging private anti-poverty initiatives (those that actually worked), conservatives applauded, probably because they knew that the Left would hate it. Indeed, Goldsmith's plan for privatizing welfare functions and empowering religious and community institutions is not some alien concept completely anathema to plain old conservatism. Goldsmith's ideas are conservatism at its very best. They expose liberalism as the cruel, heartless, and callous way of looking at the world, contrasting the statist-bureaucratic model of welfare with the voluntary-charitable view which says that material aid and individual responsibility go hand in hand. To say that the word "compassion" diminishes "conservative" is to assign exclusive province for compassion to the bureacratic-statists who are anything but. Goldsmith doesn't need to call his way "the fourth way": for wise conservatives it is already the one and only true way. Both the defenders and the opportunistic critics of compassionate conservatism are wrong to suggest that this is a fundamental depature from conservative ideology. If people begin to understand this, they also begin to understand the basis upon which conservatives — compassionate or conventional can be united in 2000.

Even knowing this, the compassionate conservatives sometimes refuse to let well enough alone, specifically in their half-hearted but still frivolous skirmishes with capitalism. A lapsed Goldsmith says, "It is the marketplace that creates value, but there are individuals for whom the marketplace is not working well, and there is a role for government in facilitating opportunity inside the marketplace." Meanwhile, Bush shops the slogan "prosperity with a purpose," toying with the part-obvious, part-silly notion that free economic growth "is not enough."

Compassionate conservatives like to emphasize that they are not resigned to the cold realities of capitalism, and they express their desires to improve on the market's errors. But this idea is at odds with that of a growing school of thought, nourished on the Internet, which sees free market dynamism as a source of wondrous creativity and positive-sum growth, not as the instigator of inequality and avarice. Compassionate conservatives don't seem to have fully come around to this view. In their public statements, they seem to accept the liberal myth that there is a dichotomy between compassion and capitalism. They identify selfishness and greed as dangers indigenous to free markets when in fact these are natural human phenomena unrelated to the development of a particular economic system.

Saying that capitalism is not enough to satisfy every possible human want seems rather absurd. Promoting the notion that there are certain things the market cannot do is like saying there are certain things the act of breathing cannot accomplish, say curing cancer. They are missing the essential point: breathing is essential for life just as free markets are essential for our national life. The solution to the spiritual problems our society might face lies not in hampering or questioning capitalism but by supplementing it with the vital force of civil society, which is what Goldsmith has been doing in Indianapolis. Ditto for the critique that capitalism works for some, but not all. The problems of the impoverished stem not from an excess of free market capitalism but a lack of it.

This is my symphathetic advice to Bush, Goldsmith and the compassionate conservatives, because I do think that they stand for something more than the dead centrism that moderates have been urging on the Republican Party and Clinton and Blair have been institutionalizing in power. I think that they are on to something. Their innovation, imperfect as it may be, can and should redound to the benefit of all conservatives, for the movement is ever closer to discovering a successful Right-wing formula for victory: compassion and capitalism.

On the web Patrick G. Ruffini can be found at He is also the chairman of the Penn College Republicans.

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