Damned Spot

Compassion vs. Conservatism 

“Blueprint” was produced for the Republican National Committee by National Media. For a transcript of the ad, click. Click here to launch a RealVideo version of “Blueprint” from the RNC Web site.

From: William Saletan

To: Chris Suellentrop

After love-bombing the country with “compassionate conservatism” for two years, Bush has reverted, at least for 30 seconds, to the more authentic conservative mission of debunking compassion. What a relief. After Al Gore’s latest {{feel-your-pain ad#86375}} on victims’ rights, I was beginning to worry that the election would degenerate into a sap contest.

This ad starts out with Bush’s usual sentimentalism (“make sure no child gets left behind”) but proceeds to remind viewers that compassion and tough love are paradoxical. Compassion in the form of generosity can be a character-softening curse, while sternness can be a constructive blessing. “Promoting failing children to the next grade” isn’t a way of helping them, Bush argues. It’s a way of “giving up on them.” And just “spending more” on a flawed education system isn’t brave; it’s “easy.” What’s hard—what requires “courage”—is the opposite of such indiscriminate support: “raising standards,” “expecting more,” and imposing “accountability” and “discipline.”

The chief moral problem with this year’s election is that because times are good, politicians figure they can coast to victory by throwing free candy at us—Democratic subsidies, Republican tax cuts—and demanding nothing in return. The only people they’re willing to be tough on are criminals and North Koreans. My hat’s off to any politician who’s got the guts to flunk my kid—and to any ad writer who’s got the brains to explain why sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.

From: Chris Suellentrop

To: William Saletan

I disagree. True, this ad isn’t a carbon copy of the Gore ad we discussed earlier this week. But it’s a mirror image. In the DNC ad, Gore tried to look tough by talking compassionately. Stock tough-on-crime images of police, crime victims, and an all-white audience contrasted with Gore’s tender words about victims’ rights. Now Bush wants to look compassionate by talking tough. Heartwarming images of minority children, a Boy Scout, and a high-school graduation contrast with Bush’s take-charge tone.

And the language in this ad is just as fuzzy. Compare Bush’s embrace of “standards” and “accountability” with the Gore ” accountability agenda.” This is the most irritating hallmark of centrist politics. The agendas are different, but the language is the same. Once upon a time, Republicans said they were for tax cuts, and Democrats said they were opposed. Democrats said they were for universal health care, and Republicans said they were opposed. Now everyone’s for a patients’ bill of rights, ending the marriage penalty, campaign-finance reform, and reforming the estate tax. And on education, everyone’s for “standards,” “accountability,” and “choice.”

The two parties still have legitimate differences, but now they won’t admit to them. That’s one reason this election has devolved into a character debate about whether Gore is a liar or whether Bush is an idiot. It’s unfortunate, because there’s a robust policy debate to be had. What happened to vouchers? Bush supports allowing some parents to use tax money to pay for tuition at private schools. But Bush’s ” Blueprint for Education” (Adobe Acrobat required), which this ad directs viewers to visit, lumps that part of his plan under the rubric of “etc.”: “Empower low-income parents of students stuck in persistently failing schools with the option of transferring to another public school, or using their share of federal funding to pay for another option of their choice (tutoring, charter school, etc.).”

“Etc.”? Have the differences between Bush and Gore been reduced to that?