Does anyone still care about Bush’s convention speech? It’s so four days ago! I dare to discuss it only because I haven’t yet read anything that completely explains why it was so surprisingly moving and potentially significant. More significant than Joe Lieberman, even! Here’s why:
When Bush introduced “compassionate conservatism” in a big set-piece speech a year ago, the concept was shot through with charitable condescension toward the poor. Bush described his compassion as “a noble calling. The calling of a nation where the strong are just and the weak are valued.” Whether or not Compassion Politics is inherently inegalitarian (as I’d argue it is), Bush’s version clearly was. The relation between the “just” and “noble … strong,” on the one hand, and the “weak” who are to be “valued” (by whom?), on the other, sure didn’t sound like a relationship between proud, free, equal citizens. Gore effectively got this point across by denouncing Bush’s “crumbs of compassion.”
Bush’s convention speech worked because it cleansed his approach to the poor of virtually all these undertones of condescension and charity. Bush did it in large part by cleansing his speech of the word “compassion” itself–the word isn’t uttered, aside from a single time in the branded slogan, where it was unavoidable. Instead, Bush talks about immigrants and single moms and “children without fathers in neighborhoods where gangs seem like friendship”–and he declares, “We are their country, too. And each of us must share in its promise, or that promise is diminished for all.”
He talks about “dignity,” not the “weak.” Instead of the “strong” showing “mercy” for the unfortunate, Bush says churches “remind us that every soul is equal in value.” And he wants to “tear down that wall” between the mainstream economy and the underclass–in effect bringing everyone into the same society.
Maybe this stance will prove to be phony, but we can’t say that yet. Even if it’s now merely political rhetoric, winning rhetoric can trap a politician and circumscribe his actions in office. Bush at least seems to have hit upon the concept that glues together the collection of individual American strivers his policies seem designed to benefit. That concept is social equality.
It’s not enough, in this sense, to give everyone an equal opportunity to succeed (“an equal claim on this country’s promise”). As the left traditionally points out, “equal opportunity” could turn out to be an equal opportunity to be unequal, with the winners charitably looking down on … I mean “valuing” the losers. In Philadelphia, Bush went substantially beyond mere “equal opportunity,” envisioning a society in which both winners and losers have dignity and respect.
Do they have equal dignity and respect? Bush didn’t quite say so, although he sort of implied it–and his life story makes it quite plausible that he would have a non-superior attitude toward the less successful. (In part that’s because, until he ran for governor, he hadn’t done much to feel superior about.) But a strong, nailed-down social egalitarian formula wouldn’t rely only on every soul being “equal in value” before God when we go to church. The precise, preferred formulation would be something like this:
“Whether we come from poverty or wealth … we are all equal in the eyes of God. But as Americans that is not enough–we must be equal in the eyes of each other.”
That’s a Ronald Reagan line, if you can believe it. Whoever wrote it knew what they were doing.
P.S.: Bush partly undermined his social-egalitarian credentials with his specific proposals for “the next bold step of welfare reform.” He described this “next step” by referring to “the heroic work of homeless shelters and hospices.” Hospices? Aren’t hospices where people go to die? Does Bush have plans for the poor he hasn’t told us about?
Even the specification of “homeless shelters” is disturbing. The vast majority of welfare recipients aren’t homeless; the challenge is to move them into the world of work quickly and with dignity (a task in which Bush’s favored faith-based organizations will play a relatively minor role for the foreseeable future, compared with government welfare departments). Welfare mothers are not in the same degraded position as the homeless, and in a good welfare-to-work program they never will be.
Even more significant, the “next step” of welfare reform should include efforts (such as subsidized health care) to enable the working poor–including those who have just left welfare–to live with full dignity. These people are not charity cases at all; they’re working citizens. But it’s not clear they have a place in Bush’s scheme, which seems to have only two categories: the educated and affluent on one side of the “wall,” and the addicted and despairing on the other. If the working poor get lumped in with the pitiful homeless, then by that very act Bush would be denying them the dignity he’s talking about.
P.P.S.: Speaking of traps, Johnny Apple of the New York Times set a false one for Bush last Friday when he described Bush’s Social Security promise (“no changes, no reductions, no way”) as “unqualified,” much like “his father’s pledge–‘Read my lips, no new taxes.’” In fact, Bush’s “no reductions” promise was pretty clearly limited “to seniors”–i.e., to today’s seniors. A subsequent paragraph made it clear that “younger workers” will be offered a different deal.