Tom DeLay, Compassionate Conservative

Guess who invented “compassionate conservatism!” Chatterbox bets you’d have never guessed Rep. Tom “The Hammer” DeLay. But after giving a speech May 4 at the National Press Club denouncing the “fashionable elite” for not supporting prayer in schools, the House majority whip came tantalizingly close to claiming “compassionate conservatism” as his own creation. This is the same Tom DeLay who once got into a scuffle on the House floor that some claim involved actual shoving–others insist there was merely chest-poking–and in which, all agree, DeLay called his adversary, Rep. David Obey, a “gutless chickenshit.”

At the National Press Club, DeLay was asked, “Are you at all concerned that Mr. Bush might stray too far from conservative principles as he moves to the center in this campaign?” Here is DeLay’s response (to view the speech and the Q&A session that followed in their entirety, click here):

Not at all. Not at all. I got to tell you, I got out early for George W. Bush, because I know George W. Where do you think conservative–where did you think compassionate conservatism came from? Not me, but his values, what he believes, what he wants to see happen in this country. That–I think our worldview that I’m trying to articulate is compassionate conservatism. When you believe in the sanctity of life, you believe that people are created in God’s image, you are compassionate to them because they are made by God, not by nature or some other–they are made by God. So you look at them in a compassionate way. That is George W. Bush. That’s why he’s been so successful. And that’s why I think he’ll be the next president of the United States, because when you stand up for those kind of values, people will rally around. It’s the old Reagan mystique. And I think the more he gets around, the better off–the better he’s going to do in the campaign.

As you can see, DeLay tiptoes up to taking credit for the phrase, or at least the idea (“Where do you think compassionate conservatism came from?”), chickens out at the last moment (“Not me”), but can’t quite derail the logic he was building toward ("I think our worldview that I’m trying to articulate is compassionate conservatism”). He then asserts that “compassionate conservatism” is all about believing in God, but still sounds like he’s talking about himself, not Bush. Apparently realizing this, he switches to a discussion of Dubya ("That is George W. Bush.”) and what a fine president he’ll make, and how he’s just like the sainted Ronald Reagan. But now DeLay starts to worry that he has overcompensated–that he sounds too much like a Bush sycophant. So he finishes off with a veiled reference to Dubya’s clumsiness on the stump, which he frames as optimism that Dubya’s image will improve ("the more he gets around, the better … he’s going to do in the campaign”). Phew!

Did DeLay invent compassionate conservatism? A Nexis database search suggests not. The phrases “Tom DeLay” and “compassionate conservative” do not appear in the same news account prior to Feb. 26, 1998. Seven months earlier, George W. Bush told the Today show’s Matt Lauer, “If you wanted to label me, you call me a ‘compassionate conservative.’ ” This doesn’t mean, of course, that Dubya invented the phrase, or the idea, either. In fact, “compassionate conservative” was frequently used in the mid-to-late 1990s to distinguish the nation’s relatively moderate Republican governors from the more conservative Republicans in Congress (of whom DeLay was arguably the nastiest). And, as Chatterbox’s colleague William Saletan observed recently in George, the phrase “compassionate conservative” had been embraced by politicians of various stripes well before that. Saletan’s earliest sighting was in 1981, when Sen. Orrin Hatch said, while rescuing a job-training program from proposed Reagan White House budget cuts, “I’m a conservative, and proud of it, but I’m a compassionate conservative. I’m not some kind of ultra right-wing maniac.” (No doubt many others used the phrase in the decades preceding the 1980s, which lie beyond Nexis’ reach.)

Is DeLay a “compassionate conservative” now? Hmm. Let’s put it this way: If the phrase “compassionate conservative” has any meaning, then Tom DeLay is a compassionate conservative.