- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2006

When President Bush took office in 2001, he, along with some allies in Congress, such as Sens. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Sam Brownback of Kansas, opened a new front in the war on poverty. Programs like the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives and USA Freedom Corps, and later the global AIDS initiative and the Senate anti-poverty agenda, tried to unleash armies of compassion in the battle to help the needy. But Mr. Bush and his band of congressional allies quickly learned this new theater of conflict included myriad obstacles, ranging from hostile political opponents to apathy from their potential partisan partners.

Challengers to change quickly marshaled a tough resistance and compassion’s allies were often slow or poorly trained to mount a counterinsurgency. As Mr. Bush and others of like mind promoted the compassionate conservative agenda over the past five years, reactions from most friends and critics alike ranged from indifference to scorn. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the White House proposed initiatives such as Gulf Opportunity Zones, Urban Homesteading, Worker Retraining Accounts and school vouchers — all significant components of a compassionate conservative agenda. Yet even while some of these ideas are now law, they are still either ignored or derided as cynical political opportunism. Today little is heard about their potency as creative, credible and effective alternatives to the traditional welfare state.

After a half-decade of fighting in this new theater, some allies in this assault on poverty, such as former White House aides John Bridgeland and John DiIulio, worry the armies of compassion are outflanked and outgunned by bigger institutional forces, including inertia, apathy, a liberal media and partisanship. And others wonder if the lack of reinforcements for these ideas and Mr. Bush losing the bully pulpit after 2008, means the big-government Leviathan will overrun the compassion agenda once he leaves office.

Liberal critics revel with glee when surveying the challenges facing these new ways of helping the poor. Focusing on the White House’s struggles, The Washington Post ran a story two weeks ago with unconcealed satisfaction headlined “Bush’s Poverty Talk is Now All But Silent — Aiding Poor Was Brief Priority After Katrina,” which outlined the obstacles faced by the president in enacting new programs to alleviate poverty.

Yet Republicans promoting these ideas don’t get much reinforcement from their allies either. Many conservative columnists and think tanks are leery or apathetic about the compassion agenda. One Senate aide told me many view it as social engineering or an excuse for “big government conservatism” — more federal spending, but on programs that conservatives like.

There are, of course, some significant exceptions. Messrs. Santorum and Brownback, for example, have been vocal supporters of new ideas to help the needy. Mr. Santorum spearheaded a Senate anti-poverty agenda earlier this Congress which included a series of bills incorporating compassionate conservative ideas. Mr. Brownback is featured this week on the cover of the Weekly Standard, in an article by Terry Eastland that reviews the senator’s efforts in helping prisoners and other needy individuals at home and abroad. Both lawmakers are also fighting AIDS in Africa and sex trafficking and joining in other international humanitarian efforts.

But the combination of a hostile liberal media and entrenched welfare-state advocates, which marginalizes and ridicules the efforts of compassionate conservative supporters, and the absence of a well-organized outside infrastructure to fan the flames of new ideas, mean innovative ways to help the needy often stall.

For the most part, compassionate conservative advocates don’t have lobbyists, or trade associations, or think tanks dedicated to promoting their ideas. And despite good intentions, even the best ideas without an “Amen Corner” often perish. Without this kind of infrastructure, the seeds of these initiatives fall among the thorns of the liberal welfare state and get choked off before they can grow.

Compassionate conservative ideas deserve a broader role in the debate about ways to help the silent suffering. Advocates like Mr. Bush, and his small band of brothers in the Senate, have proffered some profound new approaches. But the next theater in this battle requires building a compassion infrastructure and a constituency of hope. Maybe it will take some corporate CEOs or others with resources, organizational prowess and political skills to implement such an effort. Certainly the platoons of compassion need some reinforcements before the divisions of the status quo overrun them.

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