The “compassionate conservatism” of President-elect George W. Bush with its goal of “solving some of society’s deepest problems one person at a time” will move from campaign theme to governing agenda, his supporters say.
Soon to make its home in the White House, the agenda can draw on executive orders, laws, task forces, staff appointments, bully-pulpit speeches and meetings with constituents to achieve its goals.
“It will be interwoven into many of the reform proposals,” said transition spokeswoman Juleanna Glover Weiss. “We are talking with Capitol Hill now about when different proposals will be moved forward with maximum efficacy.”
Mr. Bush began the process his first day after visiting Washington by gathering about 15 religious leaders in Austin, Texas, “to begin a dialogue about how best to help faith-based programs change people’s lives,” Mr. Bush said.
“It is a perfect theme for the administration to come in with, especially after lots of nerves were rubbed raw by the election,” said Marvin Olasky, a senior fellow at the Acton Institute, a free-market and religion think tank.
Mr. Olasky, a professor in Austin who attended the meeting with clergy members, introduced the “compassionate conservatism” concept to Mr. Bush in 1993. Mr. Bush this year wrote a forward to Mr. Olasky’s book on that topic.
Many of the areas where both conservatism and compassion are supposed to influence federal policy are listed in the Bush campaign’s 457-page manifesto, “Renewing America’s Purpose.”
The Bush education plan hopes to “leave no child behind” by letting teachers discipline students, establishing national standards and infusing schools that work well with federal money.
When they don’t work, the money might go to parents to choose other schools. “You might even call it compassionate choice,” Mr. Olasky said.
Other areas where the compassionate conservative agenda may be implemented include the Department of Health and Human Services, where family-policy issues are addressed, and in the domestic-policy council at the White House.
But Mr. Bush has said the “essence” of his theme is not Washington expansion, but “encouraging and empowering the good hearts and good works of the American people,” which is a question of motivating individual people.
One way is by fiscal policy, such as Mr. Bush’s proposed new tax deductions for charity, marriage and rearing children.
Another, advocated in the campaign, is to curb abortion by making adoption easier and to help people with drug, welfare and crime problems by allowing religious ministries to use federal funds.
The allowance hinges on the “charitable choice” clause in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which is up for reauthorization late next year. At the Austin meeting, Mr. Bush told clergy members he would establish in the White House an “Office for Faith-Based Action,” as it was called in campaign promises.
Campaign domestic-policy adviser Stephen Goldsmith, who as Indianapolis mayor included religious groups in urban renewal, sat next to Mr. Bush in the clergy meeting and is expected to be named head of that office.
Getting the public interested in such initiatives does not always take funding and policy offices, said Roger Porter, a Harvard professor who was White House domestic-policy adviser to President Bush, the president-elect’s father, from 1988 to 1992.
“What the president says and how he says it, and his own integrity, can have a great impact on how people live their lives,” Mr. Porter said. “Through the bully pulpit, he could get people to think about things differently.”
He said the pace of implementing policy also is important, and he counseled a slow and methodical approach. “The temptation is for a president and his supporters to want to hit the ground running. ‘Let’s get it all done,’ ” he said.
Gary Bauer, President Reagan’s domestic-policy adviser, agreed that long-term legislative and legal goals take patience, but he urged immediate actions by executive order and political appointments.
“The advice that Bush needs to go slow because the country is divided is dead wrong,” Mr. Bauer said. He said Mr. Bush must “pin down” his conservative base by rescinding Mr. Clinton’s executive orders liberalizing homosexual rights and abortion funding.
“The domestic-policy adviser is not going to have a grasp of all the issues that land on his desk, so the type of experts you get makes a difference,” Mr. Bauer said.
Religious conservatives agree. After years of backing Republican tickets with mixed results, many social conservatives are now vesting their hopes that their candidates will gain “expert” slots in domestic policy.
“They’ll go after appointments,” said a former Republican official. He noted that social conservatives have produced lists showing how few federal judges and top 300 political appointees, for example, are “born-again” Christians.
The other way to galvanize support for the Bush agenda is White House meetings, similar to what was done in Austin with the clergy.
“You please them by access,” the official said. “It’s a tremendous pace, but if you let up, the constituency starts to slip away.”
Martin Anderson, the first Reagan domestic-policy chief, said supporters of compassionate conservatism who hope that it is not simply about formulating dry, secular policies are likely to be pleased with Mr. Bush.
“In early 1998, he had one of his lunches in Austin for policy experts from around the country,” Mr. Anderson said. “He welcomed everyone, then he stood up and said grace.”