November/December 2003

Sat Nov. 1, 2003 3:00 AM EST

When candidate George W. Bush began describing himself as a "compassionate conservative," I remember being both skeptical and intrigued. After all, "compassionate" is hardly the first adjective one would use to describe the coldhearted, me-first-and-screw-everybody-else policies that have come to define American conservatism over the last decade. And yet, here was a Republican who was telling us he was not Newt Gingrich or Tom DeLay, that he had a heart and did not view the nation's bedrock social programs as evil liberal legacies to be annihilated. Now, nearly three years after Bush took office, it is painfully apparent that "compassionate conservatism" was an oxymoron after all. Whether it's by making it harder for low-income kids to get free school lunches, cutting the energy-assistance program that helps hard-pressed seniors through tough winters, or denying college grants to students from working families, Bush has consistently demonstrated that when it comes to his priorities, helping those in need always comes last.

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Bush's attack on social programs is being waged largely under the radar, as the president and his handlers keep up the steady barrage of benevolent rhetoric and photo ops. Check out the Bush-Cheney campaign website and you'll find that "compassion" remains one of the top agenda items, right up there with national security and homeland defense. (Before looking at this site, I must admit, I had no idea the president had been hanging out with so many happy-looking black people.) But as longtime Bush watcher Molly Ivins points out in this issue ("The Uncompassionate Conservative"), Bush and his Republican-led Congress have consistently slashed the very programs he has promoted. Remember his highly touted No Child Left Behind education bill? In his 2003 budget request, he left the laws programs underfunded by $8 billion. Remember his post-9/11 praise for AmeriCorps as a model of community service? Bush stood by as Congress cut $100 million in emergency funding. Job training? The president was all for it, before he cut jobs programs--$144 million from next years budget alone.

There's a disconnect between Bushs words and policies that folks in places like Henderson, North Carolina, know all too well. Henderson--the setting for Stephanie Mencimers sobering report ("Death by a Thousand Cuts")--is suffering from the dual effects of staggering unemployment and Bush initiatives that are threatening basic programs. To hear the White House tell it, any loss of social services will be more than made up by a surge of "faith-based" initiatives, which will replace the safety net that the administrations policies are destroying. But Bush's first czar for faith-based initiatives, John DiIulio, resigned in frustration after realizing that the program was all about political spin, not social services. And after reading Samantha M. Shapiro's story ("Jails for Jesus"), even the most pious Christian may question whether we should mix proselytizing with helping those in trouble--either in prisons or in soup kitchens.

If the president seems oblivious to the impact of his policies on real people, Molly Ivins points out, he comes by it honestly. Despite his regular-guy facade, he's a product of a privileged Texas-Andover-Yale background who has remained remarkably uninterested in how the other half lives. Ivins notes that after having a pleasant dinner at the Petroleum Club in Bush's hometown of Midland, one comes away thinking, "Damn, those are nice people. Sure glad they don't run the world." The problem is, right now they do. --Roger Cohn