The chattering class is already arguing over how the Republican Party should appeal to the demographics that it lost in 2012—working older men, younger women, and Hispanics, to name a few. But what’s getting lost in this scramble is a reflection on how the Republican Party can appeal to all of the electorate, and how social conservatism is critical to that message. The GOP must become more socially conservative, with an accent on “social.”
Republican defeat last year was largely due to the party’s disproportionate focus on fiscal policy while ignoring the concerns that absorb the day-to-day lives of women, minorities, and other sectors of the electorate with little affinity for the GOP. The right long ago abandoned “compassionate conservative” issues out of disgust with the overall concept and contempt for the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives that arose from it. But this has proven to be a huge political error—and more importantly, a policy error.
“Compassionate conservatism” was a term adapted by George W. Bush’s communications director, Karen Hughes, from the work of University of Texas professor Marvin Olasky (particularly his book The Tragedy of American Compassion). The idea paved the way for the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, an effort to make the federal bureaucracy “agnostic” as to the character of organizations that received government grants for social services—in particular, whether they were faith-based or secular. Much of the finest social welfare work is performed by faith-based groups such as the Salvation Army, but co-operation between government and religious organizations had long been hampered by federal red tape.
When the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was formed in January 2001, President Bush appointed as its first director a Catholic Democrat, University of Pennsylvania professor John DiIulio. This was a catastrophic mistake for a startup bureaucratic entity that numerous interests were already keen on minimizing or eliminating. Under a loyal Republican passionate about the office, it might have had a fighting chance. With DiIulio it did not. He lasted barely more than six months. On his exit, he took the unusual step of publicly blasting President Bush and his staff, further undermining the authority of the office he so rapidly abandoned.
DiIulio’s successor was Jim Towey, also a Democrat and a Catholic, a former representative of both Mother Theresa and Florida Governor Lawton Chiles. While a decent, talented man, Towey was consigned to the policy wastelands during his tenure, for many reasons that had nothing to do with him personally.
First, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 irreversibly shifted the Bush administration’s focus from domestic policy to geopolitics and security. Understandably so, but to the unavoidable detriment of compassionate conservatism and the Faith-Based Office.
Second, Karen Hughes left the White House soon thereafter, in April 2002, barely a year after President Bush took office. Without Hughes, there were few remaining high-level White House advocates for compassionate-conservative policies.
Third, Towey was a Democrat and not in the Bush inner circle. His competence and decency could not overcome a lack of access to or attention from the West Wing, and the Faith-Based Office slowly lost whatever priority and power it once held. After the experience with DiIulio, no Democrat or outsider could receive the full faith and support of the Bush administration.
Lastly, President Bush did not issue a veto until 2006. Spending bills sailed through Congress without opposition, and grumbling among grassroots conservatives grew. Compassionate conservatism came to be seen as a code word for unencumbered federal spending and lost much of its support on the right. Without that support, secular left-wing opposition to the Faith-Based Office became a significant roadblock. Opposed by left and right alike, the initiative was caught in a vise.
As the right abandoned compassionate conservatism, social and religious conservatives, who had played a key role in Bush’s reelection, grew dismayed at the subordination of their issues to fiscal and national-security policy. In the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, they did not vote in as large numbers as in 2004, resulting in decisive Republican losses.
Today compassionate conservatism and a revitalized Faith-Based Office in a future Republican administration deserve (perhaps demand) renewed conservative attention. Compassion for the “poor in spirit” resonates greatly with many constituencies that view the Republican Party with suspicion or have outright abandoned it. A singular focus on fiscal issues does not inspire or motivate these constituencies: “checkbook policies” in isolation give the impression that Republicans are simply the party of the rich and privileged, indifferent to the plight of the less fortunate.
The best policies make for good politics too. Compassionate conservatism is a potentially great policy that remains inchoate—it cries out for reconsideration, the sooner the better.
George Seay is the Chairman of Annandale Capital, a global investment firm
headquartered in Dallas, Texas.