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THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW

Mr. Compassionate Conservatism
A Bush speechwriter makes his way in the world.

BY NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY
Saturday, October 21, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

ALEXANDRIA, Va.--Amid the cut and thrust of the midterm elections, two questions have frothed up within the recesses of the GOP--almost as an arcane distraction from the squalid business of holding on to House and Senate: Has compassionate conservatism worked? And should Republicans try it again?

Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey has made his position plain. In a recent open letter from his organization, Freedomworks, he assailed some leaders of the religious right, suggesting that if Republicans lose in November it would be because they have abandoned the principle of limited government in favor of embracing government for supposedly conservative ends. Meanwhile, David Kuo, former deputy director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, has complained in recent interviews and op-eds that the biggest promises of compassionate conservatism, especially the support of faith-based initiatives, have been broken.

Perhaps the best person to sort out this business is Michael Gerson, George W. Bush's chief speechwriter from the beginning of his presidential campaign through the end of his first term, and then White House senior policy adviser until June. Now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Gerson is plotting a book about the future of conservatism. He has been giving a lot of thought to its history.

Known around the White House as "Mr. Compassionate Conservatism," Mr. Gerson tells me: "I think it's a political truth that one reason we won the 2000 election was that Republicans finally had a message on education and welfare. In 2008, they will have to have something other than a simplistic antigovernment message." In Mr. Gerson's view, "compassionate conservatism is the theory that the government should encourage the effective provision of social services without providing the service itself." It was, in effect, a conservative twofer: limiting the scope of government and empowering faith-based institutions by entrusting to the latter services that had traditionally been performed by the former. Or so the thinking went.

We're in the sparsely decorated living room of Mr. Gerson's modest Alexandria home. An unassuming man who sits on the edge of his seat and nervously shakes his legs, he is regarded by people on both sides of the aisle as one of the most influential modern speechwriters. His rhetoric, they say, didn't just describe the president's policies, it helped shape them.

Mr. Gerson acknowledges that the antigovernment impulse "has a lot of intellectual energy" and has produced some "very healthy institutions and smart people with important policy prescriptions." But he is more interested in the strain of conservatism that is drawn from Catholic social thought, which stresses that human beings are responsible for others' welfare, and that the functions of society ought to be performed by the most local authority possible.

Yet Mr. Gerson is an evangelical, not a Catholic. And before being hired by the president, he worked for two other prominent evangelicals, both of whom he counts among the pioneers of compassionate conservatism: Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson and Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana. Mr. Colson plucked Mr. Gerson from Wheaton College (Billy Graham's alma mater) in 1986, where he studied theology. Wheaton has no Catholics on its faculty, but has led an intellectual charge to get evangelicals to think more about Catholic teachings. "It's almost a shame to say," Mr. Gerson laments, "but evangelicalism doesn't have that rich a tradition, and so you look for other sources that represent an authentic Christian witness in society."

Mr. Gerson's debt to Catholic teachings is also apparent on issues such as immigration. I asked him why, when most religious groups lined up this year to support the president's immigration proposals, evangelicals were noticeably absent. "There has been a significant history of Catholic reflection on immigration," Mr. Gerson says. He believes that a more "conspicuously global church" like the Catholic one is more likely to realize "that human beings in every culture and across every border have a radical equality before God." He also believes that evangelicals (and many secular Republicans) have succumbed "to one of the traditional temptations of conservatism": defining our national identity in terms of culture instead of ideals.

Mr. Gerson sees this temptation "reflected in our argument about democracy in the Middle East." Must there be a "democratic culture" before one can have a democracy? Mr. Gerson says that democracy took hold despite Confucianism in Asia, Catholicism in southern Europe and Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe. "All of these," Mr. Gerson notes, "were regarded as cultural impediments to democratic progress. In fact our ideals, the ideals of freedom, turned out to be more appealing than we thought." Mr. Gerson is confident that the same will prove true in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I have a deep belief that liberty improves human life. . . . People eventually find that to be true, but that doesn't mean they immediately find it to be true."

Mr. Gerson looks back on the last few years of trying to spread freedom as "a time of exhausting international engagement on a variety of fronts." And he doesn't see it ending any time soon. But if the war on terror is really going to occupy our focus for the foreseeable future, why should Republicans run on improving education and ending poverty? Did 9/11 spell the end of compassionate conservatism?

Mr. Gerson believes the answer is no; the administration's foreign policy, he says, represents an expansion of the philosophy of compassionate conservatism. Bringing freedom and democracy to other parts of the globe has required military action, but Mr. Gerson is annoyed by Mr. Bush's critics on the left who say the president only uses force to solve global problems. "The administration's increases in foreign assistance have percentage-wise been the largest since the Marshall Plan," he notes.

He is more defensive, though, when it comes to domestic spending. Mr. Gerson justifies the ballooning federal budget in two ways. First, he notes that a lot of the spending has been on security: "I think it's largely and unfairly ignored that much of the spending increases that have occurred took place in the first term as a reaction to 9/11."

But Mr. Gerson also acknowledges that "there is a genuine argument about the role of government that is going on." And he asserts that the president has been nothing if not honest about where he comes down in that argument. "It should not have surprised anyone that President Bush was going to sign on to the Medicare prescription-drug benefit because he campaigned on it in 1999. And it should not have surprised anyone that he was going to define a federal role in education to raise standards because it was one of his main promises as a candidate."

Other proposals, though, like Social Security reform, which would have appeased the party's more libertarian wing, have fallen by the wayside. He suggests that the country's polarization is a significant part of the problem. The war has contributed to this embittered atmosphere, but Mr. Gerson believes that religious divisions in this country are also a factor. "I think religion raises the temperature of a lot of debates, and it becomes a cultural clash." He blames the religious right for "taking Republican policy prescriptions and baptizing them--making them into requirements of conscience."

Of course, this "baptizing" has helped Republicans, not least the president, to garner votes. But he also observes "an abdication on the part of the Democratic Party, [which has] an almost active hostility to people of faith and religiously informed reasoning in public debate."

As a young man--I picture a slightly more awkward and more agitated version of the one sitting before me--Mr. Gerson was a fan of Jimmy Carter, but he broke ranks over abortion. Still, he believes that Democrats could win back religious folks some day. "There was a time in American history not too long ago where the most prominent evangelical was also the leading Democrat in the country. [William Jennings Bryan] didn't see any inconsistency in those things and I don't, to some extent."

Whatever its benefits for the Republicans, Mr. Gerson believes it is "unhealthy" that one party is secular and one party is religious. "My view" he tells me, "is summarized by Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that the church should not be the master of the state, or the servant of the state. It should be the conscience of the state."

He believes that conscience is especially needed for bioethical questions. He compares the utilitarian arguments of the president's critics--"they believe that medical research should proceed with very few limits because it will benefit many people"--with the supporters of popular sovereignty during Lincoln's time. "Yes we're a democracy," he acknowledges, "but we're a democracy that believes all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights."

Mr. Gerson punctuates his speech, the way he punctuated the president's speeches, with biblical references, and he has been accused of making the president speak in a kind of religious code--indeed, Mr. Kuo recently suggested this. But Mr. Gerson says he isn't trying to hide anything and there are "tens of millions of people" for whom references to the Bible are "very familiar."

But the president's rhetoric has come under fire from the right as well. After the second inaugural, Peggy Noonan criticized what she saw as the president's utopianism: "Tyranny," she wrote, "is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn't expect we're going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it's earth." Mr. Gerson again has little patience for this argument: "There is always tension between the ideals of rhetoric and the messy circumstances of the world." But he argues, as our conversation reaches crescendo, "I have no idea why that would argue that you give up on setting out the ideals."

And here is where you see Mr. Gerson's gift. The president's critics, he knows, decry America's use of power as hypocritical--that this country claims to look out for the oppressed when really we're the oppressor. In reply, Mr. Gerson picks the Founder many now think of as the biggest hypocrite of all: Thomas Jefferson. "Even though he was inconsistent in his own life, he set out an ideal that improved and motivated and guided American history from that day to this." That, he says, "is the best role of political rhetoric."

Ms. Riley is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's Taste page.

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