Please, Keep Faith

Former Bush Aide: 'Minimal commitment' from the White House plus Democratic hostility hinder the faith-based plan

Four years ago, while visiting a small urban charity, President Bush launched the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He called it "one of the most important initiatives" of his administration.

It was hard evidence of the "compassionate conservatism" that Texas Governor George Bush embraced in his first major policy speech of the Presidential campaign, "It is not enough for conservatives like me to praise [compassionate] efforts. It is not enough to call for volunteerism. Without more support and resources, both private and public, we are asking them to make bricks without straw." That day a conservative Texas governor promised more than $8 billion during his first year in office to help social service organizations better serve "the least, the last, and the lost." More than $6 billion was to go for new tax incentives that would generate billions more in private charitable giving. Another $1.7 billion a year would fund faith-based (and non-faith-based) groups caring for drug addicts, at-risk youth, and teen moms. $200 million more would establish a "Compassion Capital Fund" to assist, expand and replicate successful local programs. Legislation would ensure that reported government discrimination against faith-based social service organizations would end. A new White House Faith-Based Office would lead the charge.

It was more than a bunch of promises. It was a new political philosophy of aggressive, government-encouraged (but not controlled) compassion that simultaneously rejected the dollars-equal-compassion equation of the "War on Poverty" mindset and the laissez-faire social policy of many conservatives. It was political philosophy of the heart as much as the head.

This was a dream come true for me. Yes, I actually dream of social policy. But since the early-1990s I've been what columnist E.J. Dionne termed a "com-con" or "compassionate conservative." I worked for William Bennett and John Ashcroft in the mid-1990s on issues like immigration, welfare, and education as they tried to promote a more compassionate Republican approach. While pure com-cons were never terribly powerful in Republican circles, Bush's endorsement of this progressive conservatism was exciting. And when he became the president, there was every reason to believe he'd be not only pro-life and pro-family, as conservatives tended to be, but also pro-poor, which was daringly radical. After all, there were specific promises he intended to keep.

Sadly, four years later these promises remain unfulfilled in spirit and in fact. In June 2001, the promised tax incentives for charitable giving were stripped at the last minute from the $1.6 trillion tax cut legislation to make room for the estate-tax repeal that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthy. The Compassion Capital Fund has received a cumulative total of $100 million during the past four years. And new programs including those for children of prisoners, at-risk youth, and prisoners reentering society have received a little more than $500 million over four years--or approximately $6.3 billion less than the promised $6.8 billion.


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David Kuo
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