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Huckabee and the Bush Legacy


Huckabee in Texas this week. (AP).

The rise of former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in the Republican primary campaign raises an intriguing question: Whatever happened to "compassionate conservatism" anyway?

More than any other Republican candidate this year, Huckabee espouses the sort of philosophy that President Bush promoted when he first ran in 2000, the notion that conservatives could care about the needy and infirm even if their solutions were different than those of liberals. On the campaign trail, Huckabee has combined his conservative positions on social issues with a populist message on poverty.

And yet his emergence as a serious player in Iowa and perhaps elsewhere also serves as a reminder of how unusual that message has been in today's Republican contest. The overall tone of the debate so far has emphasized toughness in the face of enormous challenges -- who would be harder on Islamic terrorism, Iran, illegal immigration and profligate spending, who can run away faster from any aspect of his record that hints at weakness. There has been little if any serious discussion of the sort of issues that "compassionate conservatism" was meant to address.

The shape of the debate in both parties this year, in fact, underscores how each of the last two presidents has tried to redefine his party and, if the current campaign is any guide, how both of them have failed. Bill Clinton came to the presidency hoping to nudge the Democratic Party to the middle. He balanced the budget, overhauled welfare, pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement and employed a muscular foreign policy that included the use of force. Yet the Democrats this year, including his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), have been competing for the support of the antiwar base, rushing to denounce NAFTA and promising to expand the reach of government.

As a candidate in 2000, Bush touted "compassionate conservatism" as an implicit alternative to the harder-edged version of the 1990s personified by Newt Gingrich; at one point during the campaign, Bush rebuked congressional Republicans for trying to "balance their budget on the backs of the poor." As president, Bush inaugurated "faith-based" programs to steer government money to religious charities that help the poor, enacted a bipartisan program called No Child Left Behind aimed at improving education for disadvantaged and minority children; pushed for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and pumped far more money into fighting AIDS in Africa than Democrats ever did. Bush once described his philosophy as follows: "It is compassionate to actively help our fellow citizens in need. It is conservative to insist on responsibility and results." Yet Bush's attempts to move his party were, in a sense, hijacked along with the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The fight against al-Qaeda ultimately led to Guantanamo, waterboarding and Iraq. Certainly no one wanted terrorists treated with compassion. And fairly or not, Hurricane Katrina later called his administration's compassion into question.

Bush's former chief speechwriter and senior adviser, Michael Gerson, has written a new book trying to reenergize the cause, although he rebrands the Bush approach "heroic conservatism," a phrase he uses as the book's title. Gerson, who made the Darfur genocide and AIDS and malaria initiatives in Africa signature priorities during his time in the White House, gives no ground on Iraq in the book, passionately defending it as part of an effort to spread democracy, but argues for "a conservatism elevated by radical concern for human rights and dignity."

As he looks around the Republican field, Gerson sees little agreement these days, but he does seem taken with Huckabee. In his Washington Post op-ed column, Gerson wrote recently about a conversation he had with the former governor and Baptist preacher. "I'm a conservative," Huckabee told him. "But if that means I have to close my eyes to poverty and hunger, I'm not going to do that." To do so would mean he would "refuse a larger allegiance, to my own soul, and also standing before God." Gerson seemed impressed. "Perhaps it is time for religious conservatives to suspend cynical calculation and bank-shot endorsement ploys and reexamine another man from Hope," wrote Gerson, who was spotted following Huckabee around today along with other journalists.

Another former Bush adviser sees in Huckabee a little of the "compassionate conservative" agenda his boss promoted. "There's a guy who ran for president in 1999 who outlined a compassionate conservative philosophy," former White House counselor Dan Bartlett said in a speech in September. "I think the one who speaks and is clearest and most articulate on that is Mike Huckabee."

Huckabee has expressed this in part by disagreeing with Bush. During an MSNBC debate in October, he suggested he would not have vetoed a bipartisan bill to more than double the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, although he expressed sympathy for the president's position. "I'm not absolutely certain that that's going to be the right way because there are going to be so many issues we have to fight and the political loss of that is going to be enormous," he said.

Huckabee most exemplified his approach, though, in last month's CNN/YouTube debate, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney attacked him for supporting legislation to allow the children of illegal immigrants the chance to earn the same state scholarships other students could. "In all due respect," Huckabee told Romney, "we are a better country than to punish children for what their parents did. We're a better country than that."

Any suggestion of the rebirth of compassionate conservatism set off alarm bells in other parts of the party base, which sees the Bush approach as squishy abandonment of the principles of limited government. "Huckabee represents compassionate conservatism on steroids," Jonah Goldberg wrote on National Review Online. "A devout social conservative on issues such as abortion, school prayer, homosexuality and evolution, Huckabee's a populist on economics, a fad-follower on the environment and al all-around do-gooder who believes that the biblical obligation to do 'good works' extends to using government -- and your tax dollars -- to bring us closer to the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth." Phyllis Schafly, president of the Eagle Forum, explicitly linked him to Bush. "Some of the same evangelicals who sold us on George W. Bush as a 'compassionate conservative' are now trying to sell us on Mike Huckabee," she said.

But Huckabee may not be the best inheritor of the compassionate conservative mantle even for those who support it. As he has risen in the polls, his record has undergone new scrutiny and foes unearthed a 1992 survey form he filled out in which he said people with AIDS ought to be isolated from society. Asked about that on "Fox News Sunday" last weekend, he stood by the quote. And even some Bush advisers winced when they saw a quote resurrected this week from a 1998 speech, when Huckabee told a gathering of Southern Baptist preachers, "I hope we answer the alarm clock and take this nation back for Christ." Bush, for all his religiosity, would not couch his politics in such terms, and his people believe Huckabee's statement will turn off exactly the voters that "compassionate conservatism" was supposed to appeal to -- namely suburbanites who eschew polarizing politics.

Moreover, Huckabee may be the flavor of the week but he remains an underdog to win the nomination by any realistic measure. And so, in all likelihood, Bush, like Clinton, will watch another election go by with his party uninterested in following the direction its leader tried to set.

--Peter Baker

By Washington Post editors  |  December 11, 2007; 11:03 AM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , B_Blog , Mike Huckabee , Morning Cheat Sheet , Primaries , Republican Party  
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