First, was compassionate conservatism key to Bush’s success? The typical line is that compassionate conservatism inoculated Bush from being just another coldhearted Republican – an indication that he cared about people, unlike the rest of the GOP. Henry Olsen at AEI has said this line a few times, pointing out how upside down Mitt Romney was in a similar exit polling statistic. But Bush only won the popular vote in 2004, so let’s consider that election for a moment – in fact, he lost the “cares about you” portion of the vote by 75-24 to man of the people John Kerry. He also lost by similar portions among people who placed issues like Education and Health Care near the tops of their priority list, despite passing two compassionate conservative policies in No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Part D entitlement expansion.
Second, when it comes to replication: If you believe, as I do, that the 2004 election was more about patriotic nationalism in the wake of 9/11 and in the context of war against Islamist terrorism, Republicans may not win until a similar challenge emerges which unites the old Cold War era fusionism. Back to the exits: What category of voter did Bush win overwhelmingly? The 19% of the electorate who said Terrorism was the most important issue, and the 22% of the electorate who said Moral Values was the most important – Bush won both with more than 80%. Moral Values could mean compassion, sure – but isn’t it more rational that in this case, the term was a stand-in for Karl Rove’s sweeping campaign of anti-gay marriage state initiatives which did their job of driving social conservative evangelicals to the polls… almost certainly a bit of political ju jitsu that will never be replicated?
Third, when it comes to the governing philosophy portion: as I’ve written before, the compassionate conservative failure of paternalistic governance doesn’t work in the long term because it undermines the coalition which put it in power in the first place.