Wise Fool

How big an oxymoron is George W. Bush? 

It’s not easy being a “compassionate conservative.” Or at least it shouldn’t be easy. Some critics believe that the term is oxymoronic. (Oxy·mo·ron: “A phrase in which two words of contradictory meaning are used together for special effect, for example, ‘wise fool’ or ‘legal murder.’ “) But this is unfair. There is nothing inherently contradictory about the concepts of “compassionate” and “conservative.” In theory, one can be both—even if, like “black Republican,” actual living specimens are more likely to be found on public display than in natural surroundings.

Other critics think that a “compassionate conservative” is at most the back half of an oxymoron. But this also is unfair. You don’t have to be dimwitted to be a compassionate conservative. The question is whether it helps.

Scott Fitzgerald thought the opposite. He famously wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” If Fitzgerald was right, the fact that George W. Bush goes around calling himself a compassionate conservative means that either George W. is a first-rate intellect or “compassionate” and “conservative” do not qualify as opposing ideas. Do you doubt the answer?

If a person is both sincerely compassionate and sincerely conservative, though, the issue is what that person does about it. Here is where the mental challenge starts—especially if that person is a candidate for president of the United States. The contradiction Bush faces in running as a “compassionate conservative” is between the idea that the leader of the national government can solve all sorts of social problems and the idea that the national government is a contemptible institution that invariably does more harm than good.

This is not a problem for traditional, non-compassionate conservatives. They don’t like the government, and they don’t want it to take on any ambitious social projects. Nor is it a problem, in theory, for a compassionate conservative governor (with no higher ambitions). He or she can advocate government activism at a sub-national level. And of course it is not a problem for liberals, who favor government activism and don’t simultaneously object to government.

As a compassionate conservative running for president, Bush spends his days bemoaning terrible national problems, agreeing with everybody’s complaints about the failure of Washington to address their particular grievances, condemning the current national administration for refusing to take action, promising great flurries of action—and gushers of money—when he gets the keys himself, setting goals and making promises about all the wonders he will be able to achieve, and adding that he will get the horrible federal government off our backs.

Here, for example, is the official Bush campaign summary of his education policy:

Governor Bush will reform the nation’s public schools. … He will close the achievement gap, set high standards, promote character education, and ensure school safety. States will be offered freedom from federal regulation, but will be held accountable for results. Performance will be measured annually, and parents will be empowered with information and choices.

Swell. But if education is properly a function of lower levels of government, why should it be the centerpiece of a campaign for president? And why is the national Clinton-Gore administration at fault for an alleged “seven years of stagnancy”? On the other hand, if education is our No. 1 national issue, what is wrong with the national government enforcing a national policy about it? (Especially if we’ve gone to the trouble of electing a president who claims to have many of the right answers.) And if the great tradition of local control has resulted in catastrophe, why is that an argument for the sanctity of local control?

If the federal government has no business imposing a national policy for education, what business does it have spending billions of taxpayers’ dollars on education? Bush proposes more billions every day. What is the point of sending that money to Washington and then sending it back? On the other hand, if the federal government takes the money but only gives it back if you do what it wants, how is that different from imposing a national policy? Bush promises to liberate local schools from burdensome federal regulation and also to require this, that, or the other in order to get federal money. Of course, local school systems are free in theory to turn down the money, but Bush’s promise to “reform the nation’s schools” assumes they won’t turn it down, which is a safe assumption.

It is also a safe assumption that Bush’s mind (sometimes referred to as his “advisers”) has not been troubled by questions like this. Similar questions arise, or ought to, about “compassionate conservative” policies that try to have it both ways about big government by working through the private sector. W.’s sleep has probably not been disturbed by these questions either.

The widespread suspicion that this man may be a dim bulb really lets Bush off too easily. It’s not that he is incapable of thinking through the apparent contradictions in his own alleged core philosophy. It’s that he can’t be bothered. He’d rather just hold two opposing ideas in his mind at the same time. He turns out to be remarkably good at it. Maybe two ideas aren’t that much harder than one, if you’re starting from scratch.