The Washington Times

Writing in the current edition of the Weekly Standard, David Brooks posits that a new strain of conservative politics is emerging from the petri dish of the fight for the GOP nomination. In George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and in John McCain’s robust call for Americans to recognize their country’s greatness, Mr. Brooks detects the birth of what he calls “one nation conservatism.” This GOP political program abandons the libertarian rhetoric of getting government off your back and instead supports a limited but activist government pursuing a conservative reform agenda that will benefit all Americans, especially the poor.

Yes, especially the poor. We have reached an interesting point in American politics. At the level of presidential politics, Republicans have more to say about the poor than Democrats do.

For decades, from the New Deal to the Great Society through the end of the 1970s, the Democratic Party advocated tirelessly for the poor. Poverty a was a national disgrace, something government urgently needed to step in to address. Social policy in this period was, first and foremost, redistributionist in character. When poverty and other social problems persisted and even worsened, this was proof of the need to devote still more resources. Democrats, however affluent, took special pride in their party’s concern for the least fortunate. Republicans, in their view, simply didn’t care about the poor.

This redistributionist agenda is now a spent force in the party. Instead, we have New Democrats and their Third Way politics, a conscious effort to discard some of the political baggage that was making it difficult for Democrats to get elected. Their political program has arrived at a fundamental accommodation with market forces that, all agree, are essential to the prosperity of the country.

Not, to be sure, that Democrats will acquiesce in a system-wide rollback of redistributionist policies dating to FDR. The tax code will not become flat on their watch, nor will a minimum Social Security benefit be abandoned, nor will Medicaid come to an end. But the heyday of new redistributionist policies as a cure for American social ills is long past. In fact, the New Democrats were even willing to end the welfare entitlement. And while the Democratic White House and Congress did increase taxes on better-off Americans in 1993, even this was hardly a last redistributionist hurrah. Its purpose was to reduce the deficit, thereby appeasing the bond market.

There has been a lot of talk about a “new liberalism” taking shape out there, one organized around such issues as environmentalism, the problems of suburban sprawl, the safety and well-being of our students at school. In fact, these seem to be the things Vice President Gore most likes to talk about. But this new liberalism is a liberalism without the poor. What do you say to the poor once you take redistributionism off the table? Democrats seem to be having a hard time finding an answer. Well, you look for other ways to appeal to your constituency: If blacks are disproportionately poor, and you have no poverty program to offer, you can at least be steadfast in support of affirmative action. And you point to the program increases at the margin that you are willing to fund and your opponents aren’t. Mostly, though, you decry the indifference of Republicans. You explain that the modification you have made to the Democratic Party agenda was absolutely necessary in order to prevent the electoral triumph of Republican heartlessness.

For Republicans, that attack has stung. And, interestingly, it has called forth a response. Republicans now, with a tirelessness that once seemed the sole property of liberal Democrats advocating redistributionist policies to benefit the poor, advocate conservative policies to benefit the poor. The least advantaged have become the focal point of Republican rhetoric and, increasingly, policy advocacy.

George W. Bush gave a major speech on education policy last week, the first such speech of his campaign. At its center were these three proposals: federal funding only for programs that can be shown to work, as measured by student performance; an expansion of Head Start from primarily a “day-care, health and nutrition program” into a full-blown “reading and school-readiness” program; and results-based reform of Title 1, the biggest federal program aimed at poor children, which would result in grants to parents of children in nonfunctioning schools of $1,500 a child “for tutoring, for a charter school, for a working public school in a different district, for a private school.” This is not voice of the plutocratic party. It’s also of a piece with the campaign kickoff speech Mr. Bush gave, in which he outlined his “compassionate conservatism” in terms along these lines: “It is conservative to confront illegitimacy. It is compassionate to offer practical help to women and children in crisis.”

As things stand – and they may, of course, change – Mr. Gore, the Democrat, is running a campaign mainly pitched to the anxieties of affluent suburbanites, and Mr. Bush, the Republican, has cast his campaign mainly in terms of what his party can do for the poor.