There are, depending on where you live in these United States, either two or three degrees of murder, numbered in order of severity, and first-degree murder is the most heinous. The one thing they have in common, though, is perfectly obvious: someone ends up dead.

I have occasionally tried, and failed, to convey this to friends and acquaintances. "If you run me down with a truck," I say, "how does it matter to me whether you intended to run me down with a truck? The law may recognize a difference, but the victim doesn't." Inevitably, they look at me as though I were pointing an accusing finger directly at them.

As Samuel Johnson didn't say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions; some of the worst ideas in the history of man have come from people who supposedly meant well. And yet the Democratic majority in the 110th Congress is almost entirely wedded to good intentions; for the last couple of years, the slogan "Democrats Care" has been pasted on thousands of automobile bumpers. Scoffing at George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" is de rigueur; after all, what do conservatives care about? Certainly not you or me.

The politics of compassion date back to the 1960s, says Francis W. Porretto, but they really didn't take hold until 1976:

The voters turned to soft-spoken Jimmy Carter, in large measure for his unceasing emphasis on compassion and love and the contrast he made with the plain, practical conservatism of Gerald Ford.

Carter's version of compassion politics was more emotionally palatable to the voters than Johnson's social engineering had been, because Carter himself was a more approachable figure. Had he been a more effective president, he might have forestalled the Republican renaissance, with its emphasis on national defense and a return to limited government, that arrived with Ronald Reagan.

But Carter was, to be charitable, ineffective, and his particular blind spots — how markets actually work and how to handle the ever-irritated Arab Street — have stuck with him, and with the Democrats, for thirty years and more. Carter is not unintelligent; surely he must see the results of his "unceasing emphasis." Or maybe not, suggests Porretto:

There's no comprehending this unless one accepts that the compassion-oriented voter isn't necessarily concerned with the results of the policies he favors. He might be more concerned with his own self-concept as a good person, or with remaining in the good graces of the social circle he prefers; both these things are known to influence political allegiances. In any case, he gravitates almost automatically toward the candidate or policy that reinforces his subconscious notions about compassion. For many, that means accepting a party's rhetoric at face value, rather than soberly assessing the consequences of its policy preferences.

Power-seekers cannot help but be aware of this, which is a complete explanation both for Democrats' posturings and for the rise of "compassionate conservatism" talk on the Right. Democrats hold the advantage in head-to-head contests of this kind, because of their greater ruthlessness about impugning their opponents' "motives."