signaling that compassion should be a new focus for the Republican Party.
Historian Gertrude Himmelfarb reports in the magazine founded by her late husband, Irving Kristol, that Ryan is urging conservatives to rethink the GOP’s approach to poverty and hopelessness.
“Defeat, like death, concentrates the mind wonderfully,” Himmelfarb writes. “It also liberates the mind. People venture to think the unthinkable, or at least, the impermissible. A new generation of conservatives may be moved to reconsider some ideas that have fallen into disuse or even disrepute. Compassion is one such idea.”
Ryan brought it up during a recent speech to the Kemp Foundation.
“In the course of his remarks, he uttered the word ‘compassion’ or ‘compassionate’ five times, by my count — in a favorable sense,” she reports. “This is all the more striking because American conservatives have not always been comfortable with that word, regarding it as a vapid sentimentalism that has no place in politics, let alone economics.”
The term was in vogue during the Bush administration, when Bush — building on his experiences as Texas governor — established an office for “faith-based initiatives.” But like anything that’s federalized, the office (and many of those initiatives) quickly succumbed to politics, bureaucracy, regulation and inertia.
“Anticipating the objection that might be made to the idea of compassion, he reminds us that we should measure compassion not by how much we spend but by how many people we help, and certainly not by how much government spends or how many programs it creates,” Himmelfarb explains. “Moreover, his own endorsement of it is reassuring. It is precisely because of his impeccable conservative credentials that we may dare revive the word, and with it a new conservatism, a remoralized conservatism, one might say.”
That’s because at its core, conservatism is compassionate.
“We have a compassionate vision based on ideas that work,” Ryan reportedly said. “But sometimes we don’t do a good job of laying out that vision.”
Conservatism emphasizes moral obligations, including the duty to care for the poor, the elderly, and others in need. So does liberalism — the difference lies in whose duty it is. Conservatives look to individuals and communities; liberals look to government.
“Properly understood, compassion is a preeminently conservative virtue,” Himmelfarb says. “It dignifies the individual (the donor of charity as well as the recipient); it thrives in a free and sound economy where the individual can “better himself”; it nurtures a spirit of independence rather than fostering the dependency that is too often the result of misguided entitlements; and it finds expression and fulfillment in civil society more often than in government.”
Whether this gets through to the Republican Party is still in question. But at least one GOP leader gets it. Conservatism can and should be compassionate.