2. “Compassionate conservatism” was just a campaign slogan.
Many critics dismiss Bush’s talk about “compassionate conservatism” as nothing more than a cynical ploy to win over moderate voters in 2000. Liberals never believed that Bush truly wanted to bring racial and ethnic diversity to the Republican Party or that he accepted the need for the federal government to deal with entrenched social problems. The administration’s bungled response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster, along with regressive fiscal policies that disproportionately benefited wealthier Americans, also seemed to contradict the promise of compassion.
Yet, as Vanderbilt University historian Gary Gerstle has shown, Bush was personally invested in compassionate conservatism. While growing up in Texas and later serving as governor, Bush constantly befriended and worked with members of his state’s Hispanic community and fought for the rights of immigrants. “Once children are in Texas,” he said in 1995, “Texans know it is in our best interest and their interest to educate them, regardless of the nationality of their parents.” In his gubernatorial reelection victory in 1998, Bush won 49 percent of the Hispanic vote and 27 percent of the black vote – a strong showing for a Republican in Texas. (It is unsurprising that, in his memoir, Bush reportedly describes the accusations of racism he experienced in the aftermath of Katrina as “the worst moment of my presidency.”)
Bush’s experience as a born-again Christian led him to empathize with individuals’ personal struggles and to respect the role of religion in civic life.