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Compassion is easier with borrowed money

Republicans, oblivious to the irony, used to accuse Bill Clinton of being a dangerous left-wing radical who had stolen all their ideas. Despite the irony, a Democrat listening to the president's State of the Union speech on Tuesday is tempted to feel something similar about George W. Bush. He's a dangerous right-wing ideologue who is methodically, issue by issue, stealing the Democrats' thunder.

When Bush started calling himself a "compassionate conservative" during the 2000 campaign, critics dismissed this as an oxymoron _ or "baloney" to use the technical term. It seemed like an especially brazen example of the near-universal politicians' vice of trying to have it both ways (and, more important, letting the voters have it both ways).

Supporters said: No, compassionate conservatism represents a real philosophy of government. It bears some relation to "national-greatness conservatism," another concept being promoted around that time. Both terms were intended to retrofit Reagan-style conservatism (which did not turn out to be an inexorable machine of history) for political terrain transformed by Bill Clinton.

The idea was that a nation is more than just a collection of individuals after all. National goals such as promoting moral values domestically and American values abroad are okay. The government, as the operating arm of the nation, can even make itself useful improving the lot of fellow citizens who need help. But it is better if this sort of thing is done by private organizations, especially churches, or local and state governments or by using market forces and tax subsidies, rather than by big, dumb bureaucracies in Washington. Or something like that.

Four years later, is the concept any clearer? If a compassionate conservative is what President Bush is _ what is that, exactly? Is there a philosophy there, or just fudge? Judging from the State of the Union, neither critics nor supporters got compassionate conservatism exactly right.

Critics certainly were wrong to predict that Bush would use compassionate talky talk to obscure a refusal to spend a dime. At moments on Tuesday evening, Reagan Republicans must have thought they were hearing some nightmare combination of Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy: a policy wonk merged with an old-fashioned if-it-itches-throw-a-program-at-it liberal. There is "another group of Americans in need of help," the president declared. "There always is," our Reaganite friends were thinking _ or should have been thinking, if they have any principles. This needy group is "some 600,000 inmates (who) will be released from prison" in the coming year.

Wow. There was a time, boys and girls, not so long ago, when the president was also named George Bush and no Republican politician would so much as acknowledge the possibility that an inmate should ever be released from prison. Now a new President Bush for the new century proposes "a four-year, $300-million prisoner re-entry initiative" to address the needs of released prisoners, including the need to "get mentoring." Willie Horton, thou shouldst be on furlough at this hour!

Some might say Bush is quicker with the dime than he is with the dollar. A cute little program for mentoring prisoners, but no serious plan to solve the health care mess. And when he does think and act big _ as with Medicare reform and drugs for seniors _ he is less than frank about the cost. But fuzzy accounting is the tribute extravagance pays to thrift, and may therefore be an essential element of compassionate conservatism.

The biggest surprise about Bush's governing philosophy is his Wilsonian determination to remake the world in America's image. "This great republic will lead the cause of freedom." What sprouted as a substitute for those missing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has blossomed into an apparently sincere obsession. On Tuesday night, Bush actually talked about "building a nation" in Afghanistan (and later, "building a new Iraq"), using the exact words _ "nation" and "building" _ he used in the 2000 campaign to define what he thought America should not be doing in the world.

Bush is also more willing to lecture the citizenry about its private behavior than a small-government conservative would be or ought to be. Some of this is meat for his social conservative base. But his we're-all-people caveats to policies that might be interpreted otherwise _ such as his embrace of Islam throughout the war on terror and his double warning Tuesday night about respecting the individual as he called for a constitutional amendment against gay marriage _ were nice surprises.

He'll spend money, he'll send troops and he'll use the bully pulpit. We'll call that the compassionate part. Where's the conservatism? It's still there. First, in the antigovernment rhetoric. And second, in the tax cuts.

In a speech proposing program after new program, Bush sneered at the government. He said about tax cuts: "The American people are using their money far better than government would have _ and you (Congress) were right to return it." Even the cuts come wrapped in a Keynesian liberal argument: They revived the economy by stimulating demand. But the notion that tax cuts are money being "returned" to American citizens is an authentic Reaganite conceit. When the government is running a deficit of a half-trillion dollars a year, a tax cut isn't giving folks their own money back. It is borrowing money to pass out, until it has to be paid back.

So, to sum up: Talk loudly. Carry a big stick anyway. Spend money. Borrow to pay for it. Fiddle the books. I guess that's a governing philosophy of sorts.

Michael Kinsley, former editor of Slate (, writes a weekly column for the Washington Post.

Washington Post