- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The demise of important domestic policy ideas proposed earlier in his term by President Bush stands among the consequences of the war in Iraq and the Democratic takeover of Congress. Unfortunately, the exigencies of a foreign conflict and electoral political change detonated most of the bridges leading to conservative domestic-policy reform. And while these policies may now appear like distant unreachable islands, it’s important for Republican presidential aspirants and their party colleagues in Congress to continue looking for new routes to reform.

Enactment of new domestic policies will have to wait based on current political circumstances, but construction of public support must continue. Sometimes combining old ideas into something bigger and better is a way to do just that. Merging two of Mr. Bush’s most powerful domestic reform themes — compassionate conservatism and the ownership society — offers such a possibility, creating alternatives to big government liberalism and the foundation of a new, idealistic conservative domestic agenda.

Both reform proposals represent important alternatives to the welfare state. Consider the ownership society. According to Mr. Bush, “if you own something, you have a vital stake in the future of our country. The more ownership there is in America, the more vitality there is in America, and the more people have a vital stake in the future of this country.” The White House organized a variety of specific policies under this theme, including ownership of savings for health care, expanded homeownership, personal accounts for Social Security and new personal savings opportunities. All shared the common denominator of busting government monopoly control.

Similarly, despite predictable parodies from the left, compassionate conservatism holds the rhetorical and policy potential to untangle the welfare state’s noose on idealism. It potentially provides conservatives with effective new tools truly to help the most needy in society. Again, read the words of Mr. Bush from 2002: “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.” These ideas took form by demanding more accountability and choice in education, expanding conservative welfare reforms, promoting the work of charities and faith-based institutions, and helping poor countries around the world in their fight against AIDS and most recently Malaria.

But for all the potential the compassion and ownership agendas held, they each included shortcomings. Some considered Mr. Bush’s plan to help the needy as a Trojan horse for expanded government or thinly veiled conservative social engineering. And critics of his ownership society viewed it as a “rich get richer” schematic aimed at building up the wealthy, using personal greed as the raw material.

Merging the two ideas, however, could potentially improve both and become an important plank in a new domestic agenda that Republican lawmakers and presidential aspirants should adopt. Conservatives believe government compassion is an empty promise, but unbridled ownership without compassion promises emptiness as well. So promote more choice and personal control over health care, education, retirement savings and homeownership, but don’t stop there. Here is where advocates of more ownership and liberty need to incorporate some principles from another theme Mr. Bush espoused in 2002 on compassion where he notes we, “do not believe in a sink-or-swim society” and that the “truest kind of compassion is to help citizens build better lives of their own.” But he also reminded us that “the policies of our government must heed the universal call of all faiths to love our neighbors as we would want to be loved ourselves.”

Creating a “compassionate ownership” agenda addresses the criticism that these policies are devoid of any values other than promoting dog-eat-dog individualism. A political party or a presidential candidate needs to talk about the responsibilities of government to advance liberty and prosperity. Programs that build more personal ownership build bridges to those shores. Yet promoting those policies without including equally powerful rhetoric about the responsibilities of those same citizens to their neighbors and communities is both hollow and vulnerable to attack. Building wealth, ownership and prosperity are important goals, but not pursued in isolation.

A political agenda based solely on these ends can be quickly discredited as mere greed, motivated by pure self-indulgence. Infusing an ownership agenda with the values of personal responsibility and compassion can help calibrate unbridled personal consumption and form the foundation of a new, idealistic conservative domestic agenda.

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