Why ‘compassionate conservatism’ is still dead

Compassionate conservatism is back. That’s how Peter Beinart, a contributing editor at the Atlantic, reads a number of recent developments in Republican politics, the most recent being Rep. Paul Ryan’s announcement of new anti-poverty proposals.

Beinart is skeptical that this revival of an old campaign theme will work. I’m skeptical that the revival is even taking place.

Beinart argues that compassionate conservatism – the idea that conservative principles can be applied to alleviate persistent social problems such as poverty – never did much to win elections for Republicans. When George W. Bush won in 2004, he was supported by only 24 percent of voters who said that “caring about people like me” was one of the top qualities they looked for in a president. That’s only a little better than Mitt Romney did in the 2012 election.

A conservative candidate in a presidential election is unlikely to ever win a majority among these voters. If you place a higher value on “caring” than on being “honest and trustworthy” (one of the other choices in 2004), you’re probably a liberal.

I suspect that other exit-poll questions have more to tell us. In 2012, 53 percent of voters said Romney’s policies would “favor the rich.” Ninety-one percent of them supported Barack Obama, getting him 96 percent of the way to a popular majority and thus re-election.

In 2008, 60 percent of voters said Republican Sen. John McCain was not “in touch with people like you,” and Obama got 79 percent of their votes. (I’m using different questions for each election because, frustratingly, the exit polls don’t ask the same ones.)

Republicans ought to do better on these sorts of questions, and they would probably win more votes if they did. Notice, though, that none of these questions measure perceptions of compassion for the poor and downtrodden. They measure whether candidates care about “people like you” – not “people poorer than you.” (The vast majority of Americans consider themselves middle-class.)

Compassionate conservatism isn’t making a comeback, because Republicans increasingly understand that winning over the middle class is of paramount importance. Their most politically promising recent initiatives aren’t primarily concerned with fighting poverty. They’re about taxes, health care and higher education – issues where their policies would help people in all income groups but particularly those in the middle class.

My guess is that middle-class Americans aren’t looking for a president who feels “compassion” for them so much as one who will advance their interests. Republicans should put forward policies to combat poverty because that’s a moral obligation of all political leaders; Ryan’s plan is a strong one that deserves support.

But a reputation for indifference to the poor isn’t Republicans’ biggest political problem. The perception that their policies don’t offer much to the middle class is.

Ramesh Ponnuru, a Bloomberg View columnist, is a senior editor for National Review, where he has covered national politics for 18 years, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a resident fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.