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The End of Compassionate Conservatism

What the earmark ban is really about.

WASHINGTON—Will the tea party sell out for a mess of pottage in the form of a ban on earmarks?

That’s one possibility. But another is that this embrace of a purely symbolic approach to deficit reduction is a sign that the tea party's central goals may lie elsewhere—in an effort to push the Republican Party away from those aspects of George W. Bush’s legacy that tried to steer the conservative movement in a new direction. The real point may be to get the GOP to say goodbye to the idea of a compassionate conservatism and to Bush’s peculiar but real brand of multiculturalism.

It was entertaining to watch Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reluctantly capitulate to the tea party by supporting a two-year ban on requests for earmarks from his chamber's Republicans.

McConnell knows perfectly well that ending earmarks will transfer more authority over spending to the executive branch while saving little, if any, money. Earmarks, after all, are nothing more than a legislative gimmick empowering individual senators and representatives to direct pieces of federal largesse toward their favorite projects.

The tea party talks a lot about “constitutionalism,” yet this move flies in the face of the Constitution’s clear preference for congressional control over spending. It’s odd to see so much energy devoted to securing a decision that actually gives more power to President Obama, the politician who inspires so much loathing in the tea party. 

But here's a heretical thought: For many who have rallied to the tea party, the spending issue may be secondary. In the course of researching a paper on religion and the 2010 elections that my Brookings Institution colleague William Galston and I published on Wednesday, I ran across a remarkable essay by Gary Gerstle, a Vanderbilt University historian, in which he argues that Bush’s unique contribution to conservatism was the embrace of a “multiculturalism of the godly.”

Published in “The Presidency of George W. Bush: A First Historical Assessment” (Princeton, 2010), the essay sees Bush as attempting to offer “groups of minority voters reason to rethink their traditional hostility to the GOP." 

Gerstle notes that on “questions of immigration and diversity, Bush was worlds apart from Patrick Buchanan and the social-conservative wing of the Republican Party.” Bush “was comfortable with diversity, bilingualism, and cultural pluralism, as long as members of America’s ethnic and racial subcultures shared his patriotism, religious faith, and political conservatism.” 

It is notable, Gerstle adds, that at “a time in which the United States was at war and Europe was exploding with tension and violence over Islam, Bush played a positive role in keeping interethnic and interracial relations in the United States relatively calm.”

Christopher Caldwell, a columnist for the Financial Times, was one of the first political writers to pick up on the significance of Gerstle’s essay. Caldwell, an American conservative, used it to critique Bush’s multicultural and compassion agenda and to explain the tea party’s rise. Intriguingly, he suggests that “many of the tea party’s gripes about President Barack Obama can also be laid at the door of Mr. Bush.”

For example, the main effect of Bush’s faith-based initiative, in Caldwell’s view, was to funnel “a lot of federal money to urban welfare and substance abuse programs.” The No Child Left Behind Act, which “meant to improve educational outcomes for minorities, did so at the price of centralizing authority in Washington.” And of course, there was Bush’s 2007 immigration reform proposal, “the clearest sign that he was losing the ear of his party.” 

I don’t share Caldwell’s substantive take on these issues—in particular, the problem with Bush’s domestic compassion agenda was how little money he put behind it—but the column is a shrewd reflection on some of the central sources of tea party discontent.

For liberals, the publication of Bush’s memoirs has largely been an occasion for revisiting all the areas in which they rate his presidency a catastrophic failure: the rush to war in Iraq, torture, tax cuts for the rich, the response to Hurricane Katrina. It’s hard for liberals (believe me, I know) to fathom that there are any parts of the Bush legacy we might miss.

But imagine if the main result of the tea party is a “correction” of the Bush creed involving a move away from its most open and tolerant features and a rebellion against even the idea that compassion is a legitimate object of public policy. A conservatism that abandons the redeeming side of Bushism will not be an improvement on the old model.

E.J. Dionne, Jr. is is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown UniversityHe is the author of, most recently, Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right.    

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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