"Compassion" or Meanness? The GOP's Dilemma

With Ben Carson's rise in the polls, Donald Trump's absolute dominance in the Republican primary is showing signs of weakness. But what might be boosting Carson might be a matter of tone rather than content. Most people's ability to sustain a mean streak is being strained by Trump's unremitting belligerence. What made him stand out--what he calls his refusal to be "politically correct," his meanness disguised as "plain-speaking"--may be unable to provide him much more cover for his stupidity and mendacity. For example, how long can people excuse away things like his assertion during his interview with Sarah Palin that 93 million Americans are unemployed (which would mean a 59% unemployment rate), or his inability to, after avowing his deep love of the Bible, provide even one "favorite passage"?

Trump's entertainment value may still be powerful, but it may also take the form of watching his swan dive. But for that to happen, the Republicans have to do better than Ben Carson, who is a curiosity factor in his own right, but like Trump thin on presidential credentials.

So what about the candidate most felt to be one of the most likely winners of the Republican nomination, Jeb Bush? Up until July 16 of this year, Bush and Trump were even in the polls. But at that point, Trump caught up and Bush has been in his rearview mirror (if visible at all) ever since. In June, before the surge, Peter Beinart wrote an interesting article in The Atlantic, "The Limits of Jeb Bush's Compassionate Conservatism."

In it, he showed that Jeb Bush's campaign was largely a retread of his brother's own retread of their father's "compassionate conservative" branding. Beinart showed that the brand under Jeb Bush's governorship in Florida had demonstrated that those who most benefitted from Bush's policies were the rich, not those deserving of "compassion." The article noted that Jeb Bush fostered this legacy of compassionate conservativism largely as a way to not seem to be another Mitt Romney, whose comment on the "47%" of Americans who were taking advantage of the federal government by asking for rightful benefits and entitlements helped sink his campaign.

But as Robin Williams famously asked, what would "compassionate conservatism" actually look like, "a Volvo with a gun rack?"

The term actually came about long ago, when in 1979 historian and presidential advisor Doug Wead used the term in the title of a talk he gave at the Washington Charity dinner. Essentially, Wead argued that conservatives should be motivated more by compassion than by maintaining the status quo. Republican politicians took at least the guise of that notion up in their campaigning. But as well as it may have served George H.W. Bush, by 2012 USA Today columnist Amy Sullivan wondered "Is Compassionate Conservativism Dead?":

Just three years after George W. Bush left the White House, compassionate conservatives are an endangered species. In the new Tea Party era, they've all but disappeared from Congress, and their philosophy is reviled within the GOP as big-government conservatism. Is this just a case of the Republican Party wanting to distance itself from the Bush years -- or is compassionate conservatism gone for good?

I would say Donald Trump has effectively put the nail in the coffin on that one.

But now it seems that the GOP right is faced with having to come up with a new formula. There is really little chance that enough of the country (or let alone even Republican voters) will remain entertained, amused, gratified by Trump, or Carson for that matter. The question will be, how to tap into the resentment, anger, brutality only slightly masked as toughness, and yes, stupidity in the guise of free-thinking that Trump has shown is at the heart of the GOP, and repackage it in something that sounds like "compassion" but will not attempt to rethread that worn-out lie?