Bush adopted his “compassionate conservative” agenda on the theory that the harsh rhetoric and self-consciously anti-government conservatism of Gingrich’s “Contract with America” was unpopular and unlikely to win. There may be some truth to this. But, at the same time, Bush downplayed conservative positions on everything from abortion to affirmative action. He instead emphasized his support for No Child Left Behind, help for those suffering with AIDS in Africa, and an aggressively pursued, but ultimately liberal, neo-Wilsonian agenda of democratizing the Middle East.
Elections are funny inasmuch as we don’t know whether people voted for or against someone for any particular view or position they held. Each candidate always advances a grab bag of positions ranging, which many voters do not fully understand and upon which much of the campaign machinery is designed to put a positive spin. But if anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives can succeed in such liberal states as California, does this not suggest that the libertarians have it all wrong and the social piece of the traditional conservative coalition is not only popular but the most likely wedge with which to pry away socially conservative democratic voters. Instead in the 90s and now again, many of the professional pundits such as David Frum counsel that conservatism must abandon many of its “red meat” issues while also failing to fulfil its traditional role as the “tough medicine” slowing down or stopping profligate new entitlements. Instead of elections being referenda on gun control and gay marriage, we’ll instead have dueling neologisms such as “Compassionate Conservatism” and “Change We Can Believe In.” I doubt we’ll win any of those battles, not least because some of us at least don’t want to see the welfare state expand, nor do we have much use for “compassionate” conservatism other than as the punch-line for a joke.