The End of Compassionate Conservatism and the Rise of Paul Ryan

Although President George W. Bush left office with one the lowest approval ratings in history and as the object of scorn and derision from both major political parties, he is still considered by some as one of the most compassionate presidents America has ever seen. This fact cannot be disputed and is supported by his wide-spread support in regions like Africa, where the former president enjoyed an almost 80% approval rate.

Bush’s legacy is twofold. While his presidency is tainted with the disastrous recession that has contributed to a widening of the Washingtonian partisan gulf as well as a litany of blunders and gaffes, it should also be remembered as a time of US re-commitment to foreign aid. Bush’s role as trailblazer for health and humanitarian initiatives cannot be taken lightly. During his administration, through a combination of various programs including anti-AIDS and anti-malaria campaigns as well as his Millennium Challenge Corp, George W. Bush gave more aid than any other U.S. president. “When President Bush came to power in 2001, the US spent $1.4bn a year on humanitarian and development aid in Africa. By 2006, the figure had quadrupled to $5.6bn a year.”

These kinds of facts and figures underlie Bush’s school of thought:

I call my philosophy and approach compassionate conservatism. It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results. And with this hopeful approach, we will make a real difference in people’s lives.

Bush is not the only Republican who has taken on the mantle of the compassionate conservative. During the 2008 GOP primaries, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, took a lot of fire for his refusal to back down on his support for tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants.

Nowadays, rhetoric from the right that supports the poor or disenfranchised is few and far between. In their rejection of Bush, the GOP seems to have also rejected his more favorable qualities. Thus, the Democratic party, which has traditionally been the party of the poor, minorities and women, has consequently strengthened its commitment to social justice.

In a curious twist, it is the most religious politicians (e.g. Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum) who appear to be taking the hardest line on social safety net programs. As Catholics, one might expect many of their policy initiatives to champion groups that are often not able to help themselves. The Vatican’s Code of Canon Law explicitly reads: “"The Christian faithful are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor.” Yet their religion appears to be the very antithesis of their policies. Instead, candidates like Ryan seem to spit the words “food stamps” and “welfare” as if they are dirty words.

Yesterday, NYT op-ed column Maureen Dowd wrote a scathing indictment of Paul Ryan and his policies in a piece entitled “When Cruelty Is Cute.” Paul Ryan’s proposed budget would limit spending on all programs except Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security to 3.75% percent those condemning many Americans to the vicious cycle of poverty.

Although sardonic in tone, the article aptly highlights the fact that Paul Ryan’s toothsome grin, cute family and upbringing have allowed us to overlook the fact that his policies are not only harsh, but borderline cruel. Paul Ryan fails to recognize the role that privilege - in his case, white and male privilege - play in the idea of a meritocracy. The principle is not tenable because there are so many outside factors such as race, sex and religion that play a role in our ability to climb the societal ladder. Just because he had “made it on his own”, aided implicitly with his affluent background, does not mean everyone is equally capable of doing so. 

Despite the idea of the American dream being an individualistic enterprise, one must admit that many successful people who pulled themselves up from their bootstraps would not be in their positions had it not been for the help of others or the aid of the government in some way, shape or form.

This election, as Barack Obama has often publicly noted, is a battle of ideologies. While it should be the run of the mill back-and-forth, it has degenerated into a discussion about the merits of policies with compassion - a stance that should be non-negotiable.

It is a fight to determine whether for the top earning brackets to live their dreams, the rest of the country must sacrifice their own.