Steven Teles on Compassionate Conservatism:

Political scientist Steven Teles has an interesting article in National Affairs on the history and possible future of "compassionate conservatism, which he defines as an effort to change the image of onservatism by linking it to "concern for the poor and minorities." Teles is one of the leading academic experts on conservatism. He is the author of the excellent book The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, which I reviewed here, and which was also discussed in a series of VC posts. His analysis of compassionate conservatism is also well-worth reading for anyone interested in the subject. Steve correctly argues that compassionate conservatism has deep roots in various types of right of center thought, but that it has never really succeeded in breaking through politically.

I do have one reservation about his analysis. Unfortunately, Steve conflates two very different political agendas that both sometimes sail under the "compassionate conservative" flag. One is the idea of emphasizing elements of the traditional free market agenda that are particularly likely to benefit the poor and racial minorities - most notably school choice, enterprise zones, protection for property rights, and the like. This was the thought behind Jack Kemp's and the Heritage Foundation's advocacy of what they called the "empowerment agenda," which Steve mentions in the article. It is also at the heart of the strategy pursued by the libertarian Institute for Justice, which focuses on the ways in which eminent domain and restrictive licensing laws tend to harm the poor. Following Edward Glaeser, we can refer to this project as "small-government egalitarianism."

A very different type of compassionate conservatism was that pursued by the Bush Administration and its supporters: advocating big government economic and social programs similar to those traditionally supported by liberals, but with a conservative overlay. Examples include the No Child Left Behind Act (a massive expansion of federal education spending coupled with a few "accountability" measures favored by conservatives), the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill (a massive expansion of federal health care spending, coupled with a small market-based program), and the Administration's ultimately disastrous efforts to use the federal government to, in Bush's words, "use the mighty muscle of the federal government" increase homeownership rates. More generally, Bush presided over a massive expansion of government spending and regulation; some of this was pure political opportunism, but much of it was also rationalized by the theory of compassionate conservatism. For lack of a better term, we can call this agenda "big government conservatism."

Small-government egalitarianism and big government conservatism have very different strengths and weaknesses. Although Steve suggests that conservative intellectuals have grown disenchanted with compassionate conservatism as a whole, most still support the ideas associated with the small-government egalitarian agenda. Small-government egalitarianism has much deeper roots on the intellectual right than big government conservatism, which few serious conservative thinkers find appealing, except as a political strategy. The political weakness of the small-government egalitarian agenda arises from the fact that it goes against the demands of powerful interest groups and doesn't spark much enthusiasm among the nonpoor, nonminority voters who form the base of the Republican Party. For these reasons, Republican politicians have (with rare exceptions such as Kemp), usually done little more than pay lip service to it.

The problem with big government conservatism, by contrast, is that its policies don't seem to be any better than the liberal ones they to a large extent mimic. Many conservative politicians (and a few intellectuals) went along with it nonetheless because it seemed politically advantageous to do so. It is still possible that this approach will be a winning political formula for the Republican Party. So far, however, it has fallen well short of delivering the political bonanza that Bush and Karl Rove expected. Some conservatives also hoped that big government conservative policies would forestall the enactment of even bigger expansions of government by liberal Democrats. That expectation, too, has been disappointed. Certainly, the passage of the NCLBA and the prescription drug benefit did nothing to diminish either liberal Democrats' or the general public's enthusiasm for further expansions of government in education and health care. Moreover, the close association between the big government version of compassionate conservatism and the discredited Bush Administration will make it difficult to revive conservative support for this set of policies - at least in the near future.

Steve suggests that advocates of compassionate conservatism must turn away from an exclusive focus on party politics if they are to succeed:

The most likely pathway back to influence for compassionate conservatism, however, may not run through party politics at all. Rather than attempt to use the Republican party as a battering ram to reform the welfare state, compassionate conservatism might return to its more ideologically ambiguous roots, seeking to advance itself through strange bedfellows rather than party-line coalitions. Compassionate conservatives could rebuild their linkages with reformist Democrats, changing policy slowly by reshaping the conventional wisdom in both parties. The future of compassionate conservatism may, like progressivism before it, depend on attracting "respectable people" across the political spectrum through a slow process of experimenting, organization-building, and seeking out allies. History suggests that this will be a more durable strategy for compassionate conservatism than capturing the Republican party, which has at best been its fair-weather friend.

There is, I think, some truth to this. Parts of the small-government egalitarian agenda could appeal to liberals and centrist, as witness the widespread liberal and moderate opposition to economic development takings. However, it will be difficult going at a time when most liberal opinion leaders are intent on an agenda of expanding the size and scope of government. Moreover, the widespread perception that the current economic crisis was caused by free markets has turned most liberals away from the flirtations with limiting government that some were open to in the Clinton era. It will be some time before they are willing to reconsider.

Big government conservatism, by contrast, is most likely to be revived if the Republicans once again come to see it as politically advantageous. It has little appeal to most right of center intellectuals (most of whom became right of center in the first in large part because they are suspicious of big government, at least in economic policy), and its appeal to liberal intellectuals may be even smaller. And if a big government conservative revival does happen, it probably won't use the "compassionate conservative" label that has been tarred by association with Bush.