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Power politics

The tragedy of compassionate conservatism

Power politics

(Illustration by Krieg Barrie)

As the Bush administration ended, reporters who credited or discredited me with developing "compassionate conservatism" asked for an assessment. Most hoped that I'd dump on Bush, as so many others have. I didn't oblige, but honesty requires the mention of disappointment.

Governor and then President Bush wanted to fight poverty, alcoholism, addiction, and other social problems. He saw faith-based approaches (from personal experience) as an effective way to do battle. He wanted them to garner additional resources and left the how-to questions to his advisors.

As a volunteer chairman of a Bush task force in 1999, I was pleased when the candidate adopted my proposal for charity tax credits that would be part of a decentralized anti-poverty plan. On July 22, 1999, in his major policy speech regarding compassionate conservatism, he spoke of tax credits, promising that "individuals will choose who conducts this war on poverty-and their support won't be filtered through layers of government officials."

Other advisors, though, had a second objective: Maintain the Washington grants economy, but end discrimination against religious groups by creating a level playing field for all fund-seeking organizations. As a teammate I agreed to promote both objectives and naively assumed that all religious groups, not only semi-secularized ones, would be welcomed. (See book review.)

A decade later, it's clear that objective one got only to first base. With a few exceptions (the White House finally set up several voucher programs, including Access to Recovery for addicts and alcoholics), individuals are not choosing and layers of government officials are. Why? Maybe it's harder for folks arriving in Washington to lay aside power than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

But what happened to the second objective? I traveled recently to Indianapolis, where Bush in 1999 gave his policy-setting speech regarding compassionate conservatism, and asked inner-city innovator Tim Streett (WORLD, Dec. 18, 1999) what had changed.

Streett said anti-poverty work is "not a whole lot different on the ground. There's a recognition that federal dollars are available, but a lot of people understand that strings are involved and they don't want to go there. Nothing's really changed."

I sat down with four key figures at Wheeler Mission Ministries, a longtime Christian homeless shelter in Indianapolis, and saw there as well a lack of enthusiasm:

➤ Rick Alvis, chief executive officer: "We thought the federal government was going to come alongside us. Then we started hearing, 'Can you change your program and take out the spiritual angle?'"

➤ Larry Wright, chief operating officer: "We said, 'Hold on, this is not what it was supposed to be.' And with government funding you always have to be aware that it's 'here today, gone tomorrow.' You don't want to get hooked on it."

➤ Cal Nelson, chief program officer: "The game is set up by government. You play their game or you don't get in. . . . Much better to have vouchers, free and clear. . . . Put the decision in the hands of people rather than a bureaucrat getting his ego stroked."

➤ Steve Kerr, chief development officer: "The reporting process was so encumbering to us. We would have had to hire a person just to do it."

Alvis also noted that it's "expensive to go after grants." He cited one lobbying group that wanted $10,000 to $12,000 a month for a retainer and cautioned that Wheeler might have to wait two years to see a grant forthcoming. Alvis mused, "Maybe we should have hired them. Another rescue mission retained that company and received a $1 million grant."

I also spoke with the head of an Indianapolis evangelical program that received a "capacity-building grant" of $750,000 over three years, with funds to be used not for programs but to improve fundraising and technology, and to pay for consultants. Much of the federal effort has emphasized building capacity in the suites to apply for the next grant. Too little has affected lives on the streets.

The tee-ball games that TeamBush had for kids on the White House lawn were a sweet element of the departing administration. The sad part is that Bush staffers have teed up the ball perfectly for the new administration to send taxpayer dollars to Obama supporters at liberal religious groups that swing votes but don't change lives.

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