Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Compassionate Con

A former White House aide examines the unfulfilled potential of the cornerstone of Bush's "Compassionate Conservative" agenda, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In a column on Beliefnet, David Kuo, a former deputy director of the program, expresses his disappointment in its failure to "keep faith" with the people it promised to serve. However, he never manages the candor of the program's first director, John DiIulio, who wrote in 2001 that the White House was more concerned with politics than with policy when it came to faith-based initiatives.

Kuo lists the components of the Compassionate Conservative initiative that convinced him in the beginning that it was more than just a political slogan.

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.

But, Kuo says, he came to understand quickly that the White House "... never really wanted the 'poor people stuff.'"

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.

Kuo concedes that there was "minimal senior White House commitment to the faith-based agenda." However, he places most of the blame for these broken promises at the feet of Democrats, liberals and, to some extent, Republicans in congress.

So what happened?

1) On Capitol Hill, Republican indifference couldn't overcome knee-jerk Democratic opposition.

The moment the president announced the faith-based effort, Democratic opposition was frenzied. Hackneyed church-state scare rhetoric made the rounds; this was "radical" and "dangerous" and merely an "attempt to fund Bob Jones University."


3) Liberal antipathy magnified the Initiative's accomplishments.

Secular liberal advocacy and interest groups attacked every little thing the faith initiative did. When Executive Orders were issued permitting an organization to simply display a cross or a Star of David, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called it "a crusade to bring about an unprecedented merger of religion and government." When we helped Boston's historic Old North Church (of Paul Revere fame) get new windows through a historic preservation grants program at the Department of the Interior, the clamor was the same. The net effect of all the jabbering was the appearance that great progress was being made.

Had these liberal groups or an alliance of charities held the White House accountable for how little was being done -- especially compared to what was promised -- there is no telling what might have happened...or what might still happen.

Ah. So, liberals suffocated public support for the faith-based agenda by making it seem that Bush was accomplishing too much! Well, damn them!

Kuo acknowledges that Bush, who tends to get what he wants when it comes to legislation, never put any pressure on his allies in congress. At the same time, he places equal responsibility on the apathy of Republicans in the House and Senate.

Congressional Republicans matched Democratic hostility with snoring indifference. Sen. Rick Santorum spent endless hours alone lobbying Senate Leadership to give some floor time, any floor time to get a bill to help charities and the poor - even after 9/11 when charities were going out of business because of a decline in giving. He was stiff-armed by his own party.

Kuo never places the blame for this failure where it belongs. The painful truth is that if George W. Bush really wanted the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to succeed, the program would be unstoppable. If he applied the same pressure that he put on them to pass his Medicare drug benefit, Republican leaders in the House and Senate would stop at nothing to carry out his wishes. One has trouble believing that Bush can not twist enough arms in his own party to pass a faith-based tax credit. Remember how many true fiscal conservatives succumbed to the pressure to vote for a brand-new entitlement program worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

In fact, Bush has demonstrated no significant interest in fulfilling his faith-based promises. Kuo cannot bring himself to say it, but "Compassionate Conservatism" really never was anything but a political slogan. Even as he attempts to shine the light of truth on the president's unkept faith, he allows Bush to continue hiding in the shadows.