A Fitting End of a Bygone Era
People claim that they fear public speaking even more than they fear death. An old Jerry Seinfeld joke points out that, if true, this means that most people attending a funeral would rather be the guy in the casket than the guy giving the eulogy. Over the weekend, former president George W. Bush had the rare opportunity to be both. Speaking at Senator John McCain's funeral, Bush gave a fitting eulogy for the very ideology he embodies.
"Compassionate conservatism" was the slogan for G. W. Bush's first presidential campaign in 2000, and that slogan set the tone for his presidency. It was markedly different from Ronald Reagan's 1980 slogan, "Let's Make America Great Again." Instead of continuing Reagan's legacy, Bush was continuing his father's. Bush Sr. had run for president after serving as vice president during Reagan's eight successful years and two landslide victories. Yet despite Reagan's overwhelming success, Bush Sr. opined:
"I wonder sometimes if we've forgotten who we are. We're the people who sundered a nation rather than allow a sin called slavery. And we're the people who rose from the ghettos and the deserts. And we weren't saints, but we lived by standards. We celebrated the individual, but we weren't self-centered. We were practical, but we didn't live only for material things. We believed in getting ahead, but blind ambition wasn't our way. The fact is: Prosperity has a purpose. It's to allow us to pursue 'the better angels,' to give us time to think and grow. Prosperity with a purpose means taking your idealism and making it concrete by certain acts of goodness. It means helping a child from an unhappy home learn how to read ... It means teaching troubled children through your presence that there is such a thing as reliable love. Some would say it's soft and insufficiently tough to care about these things. But where is it written that we must act if we do not care, as if we are not moved? Well, I am moved. I want a kinder and gentler nation."
Legend has it that Nancy Reagan, at that moment, leaned over to her husband and asked, "kinder and gentler than whom?" Bush Sr. had begun his presidential bid by setting himself apart from the person whose coat-tails he was riding to victory.
When Bush Jr. ran for president twelve years later, his rhetoric mirrored his father's. National greatness, he insisted, is found in "acts of caring and courage and self-denial." Some of President Bush's notoriously "compassionate" achievements included Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, and the HUD policy that caused the 2007 housing crisis. These achievements were about as popular among conservatives as Campaign Finance Reform and Immigration Reform—the two policies Barack Obama mentioned during Saturday's memorial service in praise of John McCain's willingness to cross party lines.
Conservatives suspected, after the Bush years, that the word "compassionate" had become a code-word for a politician's willingness to abandon conservative principle. During his 2004 presidential bid, John McCain turned "compassionate conservatism" into a farce by suspending his own campaign, throwing his own conservative supporters under the bus, and praising his political opponent on the campaign trail. Apparently, the only truly "compassionate" position left for Republicans was to let the Democrats win and implement liberal policy on their own.
Compassionate conservativism is now dead.
It might seem strange that any amount of time was spent at an impressive Senator's funeral taking pot-shots at president Trump. But it makes sense once one understands that the war of words between Trump and McCain was a proxy battle between the conservative base and a legacy of "compassionate conservatism." John McCain symbolized that legacy. Donald Trump symbolizes the conservative reaction. In light of the Trump phenomenon, Democrats, the media, and the establishment GOP have all joined together to collectively mourn the passing of "compassionate conservatism." Of course they are going to lash out at the man who killed it.
Meanwhile, life for most Americans goes on. While the media honors John McCain's impressive legacy, most Americans tune in for a few minutes and go about their day. Ever the populist, Donald Trump pays his respects via tweet, and spends the rest of his Saturday on the golf course.