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."

On the upside for the Democrats, this means that mocking Bush's putative compassion might actually be justified; after all, after taking a fair amount of political heat, W. proved once and for all that he could throw money at problems as fast as they could. Maybe even faster. And the results were just about the same: no discernible improvement in the condition of the Average Man, and a blotch of red ink on the government's balance sheet.

It wasn't supposed to work out that way. In The Wall Street Journal, back in 1999, Myron Magnet explained what was going to happen:

If compassionate conservatism breaks out of the traditional Republican mold, it utterly rejects the liberal conventional wisdom about uplifting the poor. The liberal worldview, which has reigned for over a generation, purveys such notions as that the only way to reduce crime is to cure its "root causes." Compassionate conservatism waves away the claim that such nostrums are the only possible expression of "compassion" for the poor. It acknowledges that liberal prescriptions, good intentions notwithstanding, have in fact made the lot of the poor worse over the last 35 years. Why else, after decades of growing opportunity, are the worst-off more mired in dependency, illegitimacy, drug use, school failure and crime than they were when the experiment began? Liberal compassion's main success is to make the self-styled compassionate feel good about their superior virtue. Compassionate conservatism derails the Democratic Party's greatest rhetorical advantage, its demonstrably empty claim of a monopoly on caring about the worst-off.

Except for the minor detail that most of these issues were addressed by previous Republican Congresses — and by a Democratic President. And I believe that Bill Clinton was able to pull this off because his hail-fellow-well-met joviality, which he was able to extend to every person on Earth plus visiting Klingons and Vulcans, not only concealed the top item of his agenda — the creation and dissemination of a Clinton mythology — but enabled him to do things which the Republicans dared not do on their own. The GOP during the first six years of Bush 43 demonstrated pretty clearly that they didn't gain any additional daring by having one of their own in the White House, which is why the feckless Dennis Hastert is out and the cheerfully Machiavellian Nancy Pelosi is in.

Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once opined that some of America's problems might best be handled by a dose of governmental "benign neglect": "The forum has been too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides." He said that in 1970, and inevitably, he was pilloried for questioning the intentions of said hysterics et al. He could have said that in 2007, were he still alive, and the results would have been just about the same. At least I hope they wouldn't try to murder him, because I can already tell what's going to be said in the killer's defense.

The Vent

  15 January 2007

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 Copyright © 2007 by Charles G. Hill