For those who don’t remember, early in the 2000 presidential campaign there was a divide in the Republican party over the use of the term “compassionate conservative”. For many in the party, the need for the distinction was quite obvious. Conservatives were mean, unless they were the religious type, and that type were just extremists. Perhaps you know the concept better from a popular illustration. “Regular” conservatives wanted to teach the poor to fish, while liberals wanted to give the poor fish to eat. Conservative pointed out that at liberals were foolish, because they would need to keep feeding the poor everyday for the rest of their lives and their children and grandchildren as well. In essence, they would become permanent wards of the state and loyal voters fearful of losing their handouts. This was contrary to the American dream. What about hard work? Rugged individualism? Self reliance? To only feed a man a fish was to subjugate him to near slave status and to be at the mercy of others. It robbed him of dignity and the ability to achieve his right to the pursuit of happiness. Liberalism, it was reasoned, was wholly un-American.
Liberals of course, scoffed at such a view. So, they argued, a man and his family will starve to death while taking fishing lessons from someone who takes the fish he does catch and deducts the cost for the pole or nets and the training and then takes his profit off the top. This leaves the man with mere scraps with which to feed his family. The greedy fisherman who owns the boat and hires the man lives in luxury and profits greatly while the man who is desperate has no clout and must take what he gets. Is this the “brotherly love” conservative claim to champion? Is this the American way? Must a man live in poverty his whole life while making someone else wealthy off of his sweat? This seems to resemble slavery as well.
For the morally conservative in the Republican party, this was a serious issue. These conservatives were conscious of the PR image that they were fighting. Americans may as a whole be politically ignorant, but they recognizing injustice and compassion when they see it. Neither solution of “teaching” or “feeding” were sufficient; but if only one was to be chosen, a man needs to eat first if he is to have the strength to work. Perhaps this will explain the liberal’s argument about free school breakfast and lunches in public schools.
Enter the term “Compassionate Conservative”. Why not do both! Genius! If we allow welfare, but limit its duration and require the recipient to seek employment, it’s a win-win. A “kinder and gentler” America.
Other Republicans were aghast. The term “Conservative” does not need a qualifier. How dare anyone suggest that there was a need for the adjective “compassionate”. It was self evident. The true definition of conservatism was dripping with compassion. To suggest the need for the adjective compassionate was to concede the point to liberals. This became a struggle over who could be more “compassionate”? Conservative Republicans would thus join battle on the Liberal Democrats terms. A battle conservatives were sure to lose.
Today we are poised to fight this battle once again. As conservatives gain more and more control in congress, the question of compassion will return. How can Republicans cut hundreds of billions of dollars from the budget without hurting the poor and needy?
The answer is not simply to preach self-reliance, but to focus on what the Founding Fathers witnessed firsthand. Christian Charity. Liberals have done their best to remove the concept of individual charitable acts. They reasoned that only governments could and should address the inequalities in society. Too many Americans were fine with passing off the responsibility of showing compassion to neighbors or strangers. What’s a few extra buck in taxes if it frees me up on weekends from working at the soup kitchen? If Conservatives in Washington are going to have success, it falls to conservatives on main street to step up and step into the lives of people they may not yet know exist.
Let’s practice what we preach.